I have always believed this ABC sitcom -- a parody of soap operas -- is one of the great examples of ensemble comedy. Some episodes and plot threads were better than others, but taken as a whole the series was remarkable for its ability to combine farce with tragedy. A doctor could tell a main character he was going to die, but only after two minutes of nonsensical dialogue and physical slapstick. A woman could be kidnapped, but the scene pertaining to calling her family would center on long-distance rates, not ransom demands. Absurdity was at every turn on "Soap," and the show reveled, wallowed, danced around naked in it.
In the fourth and final season, the show had begun to show signs of wear, however. While show creator Susan Harris had always written the scripts herself (sometimes with Stu Silver), fourth-season episodes often had as many as six credited writers, and it showed. Comedy seldom works when it is compiled by a committee.
These episodes generally lack the sharpness of the previous three years, and many of the plots make you roll your eyes rather than laugh. Jodie (Billy Crystal) undergoes hypno-therapy and emerges permanently stuck as a 90-year-old Jewish man? Danny (Ted Wass) has an affair with Chester's (Robert Mandan) new wife? The former is stupid, the latter feels obligatory. ("We can't think of anything else to do. How about adultery, then?")
There is also the matter of Burt (Richard Mulligan) and Mary (Cathryn Damon), always a perfectly happy couple, the "normal" ones in a sea of adulterers and wretches. (Mulligan and Damon both won Emmys in 1980 for playing that couple.) Near the end of this season, even they become unhappy, with Burt over-focused on his political career and Mary an alcoholic. (That part is especially hard to watch: Mary is such a good-hearted character that seeing her so debased, and neglected by her husband on top of it, is unpleasant.)
But the fourth season has plenty of laughs, too, and more than a few of the classic "Soap" moments came from this year. The flashback to Chester, Jessica and Mary in high school is delightful, especially considering how little effort was made to make the 40-something actors look any younger. There's Jessica and El Puerco's (Gregory Sierra) discussion of the female orgasm. (That word is never used, but it was still pretty daring for a prime-time sitcom!) And there's Richard Mulligan's constantly enjoyable performance as Burt, a lovable idiot, at least until the latter half of this season, when he becomes a politician and stops being quite as lovable.
All 21 episodes from the final season (1980-81) are included on three discs. The first episode is basically two episodes pasted together, as that's how it originally aired, as a one-hour season premiere. However, other episodes later in the season also aired back-to-back, yet are included here separately. So I don't know what the logic was.
The episodes are complete -- these are NOT the syndicated versions, where material was cut out to make room for more commercials. One beef: The recaps ("In the last episode of 'Soap'...") that are supposed to be at the top of each episode are missing from almost all of them. As a slight bonus, however, the opening sequence is slightly extended: The tableau of cast members dissolves into a brawl a few seconds after the announcer says, "And this is ... 'Soap.'" It's funny, because I always thought it seemed like that was about to happen.
Video: The picture quality is little better than watching the reruns on broadcast TV. Obviously not much effort was put into making the picture pristine.
Audio: What you'd expect from a sitcom from 1980. It's not stereo, but it sounds fine.
Extras: None, except for some previews of other TV shows on DVD. Again, Columbia/Tri-Star put forth little effort on this series, seeking just to get it out there without spending any money on it.
If this season wasn't as great as the first three, it's still worth having the DVD set to round out the collection. The extra writers were dismissed for the last few episodes, and Susan Harris and Stu Silver managed to re-capture some of the old goofy magic in time for the multiple-cliffhanger finale.
The great thing about this show is that it started over-the-top and committed to it: The performances are big, the jokes are big, the stories are big. The show didn't knock everything out of the park, but you can't say it didn't swing. And while I enjoy the modern trend of comedies being low-key and subtle (a la "Arrested Development"), "Soap" was an admirable entry in the genre of zany buffoonery.