Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I shouldn’t have been allowed to watch Soap.
It wasn’t my mother’s fault—not really. Shortly after Soap debuted in September of 1977, she became a single mom, and over the next couple of years she was either working late or going to bed early, leaving me, my brother, and our television to fend for ourselves. She wouldn’t have had the time to find out about the controversy that had been surrounding Soap since before it premièred. In the summer of ’77, word leaked out that the ABC sitcom’s first-season storylines were going to involve Mafia hit men, impotence, philandering husbands, a promiscuous young woman in love with her priest, and a gay character contemplating a sex-change operation. Moral guardians and gay-rights groups alike were up in arms, and ABC tried to soothe everyone’s jangled nerves—including those of Soap’s creative team, who were worried that their show was going to be defanged by the network.
I was about to turn 7 when all that was going on, so I was oblivious. I watched Soap throughout its four-year run not because it was scandalous, but because it was funny. And, yes, okay… because it seemed “adult.” Back then I liked to think of myself as a little grown-up, even if I didn’t always understand what I was watching, hearing, or reading. If it had the feel of something smart, sophisticated, and possibly naughty, I absorbed it. (I remember once, on the fourth-grade playground, repeating this Soap joke: “My mother won’t let me eat alphabet soup because it contains the letters ‘S,’ ‘E’ and ‘X.’”)
And so it came to pass that on Feb. 15, 1979, when I was 8-and-a-half years old, I sat down to watch Soap all by myself, and I saw this scene:
Now, it’d take way too much unwinding to explain completely what’s happening in this well-appointed nursery, where toys are flying around and a demonic voice is laughing. Suffice to say that the baby—the progeny of Corinne Tate and Catholic priest Father Timothy Flotsky—is possessed, and in later episodes will have to be exorcised. It’s also important to note that the demon baby was a new plotline for Soap, more or less. The writers had teased out a little mystery surrounding Corinne’s pregnancy, but nothing to prepare viewers for the spine-tingling supernatural hoo-hah they were planning to throw at us at the end of episode 44. I can tell you this: It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen on a screen of any size.
But then a lot of the success of Soap had to do with moments just like that one. The show could get very, very weird at times, running its dozens of characters through a freewheeling mash-up of whatever was in the forefront of pop culture at the time. The Exorcist, The Godfather, Close Encounters, you name it. Soap was part Mad magazine, part Robert Altman ensemble piece, and part Norman Lear. And though the show was ostensibly a comic riff on the soap opera, its structure relied on the same cliffhanger melodrama as the genre it was semi-spoofing. Soap was about two sisters, the rich and ditzy Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and the working-class and practical Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), and it used their class differences and tangled family relationships as a jumping-off point for dozens of twisty, largely open-ended storylines. Over the course of four seasons, characters would get killed, go crazy, and get embroiled in political scandals and murder trials, and all the while creator/scriptwriter Susan Harris would move the action along just incrementally enough to keep viewers hooked, with frequent “I can’t believe what I just saw” scenes to maintain the buzz.
Besides the possessed infant, episode 44 follows four other stories: Chester Tate (Robert Mandan), Jessica’s husband, returns home after a long stint as a wandering amnesiac, and learns that Jessica had a fling with the private detective who’d been hired to find him; Mary has a reluctant meeting with her husband Burt (Richard Mulligan), and learns that he didn’t have an affair; young Billy Tate (Jimmy Baio) has a chance encounter with a girl he once had a crush on, and finds out that she’s now part of a cult known as “The Sunnies”; and the eldest Tate daughter Eunice (Jennifer Salt) visits her criminal boyfriend Dutch (Donnelly Rhodes) in prison, and convinces him not to try and break out. All of this is set up, as with every episode, by a fast-paced “previously” montage and a simple opening-credits sequence.
Soap had an unusual style. It didn’t try to look like a real soap opera—at least not to the extent that Norman Lear’s bizarro soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman did—nor did it shy away from broad comedy. Harris has said she never even considered the show a “soap” per se, but that she just liked how the decompressed storytelling of a daytime drama allowed her the freedom to sprinkle episodes with scenes where characters just hung out together without advancing the plot. Having written for Norman Lear’s All In The Family and Maude, Harris knew what could come from bouncing strong personalities off each other on a well-lit, well-dressed stage. She liked conversation, wit, and wackiness. That’s even apparent in the climactic scene of Soap’s 44th episode, which includes several examples of the Tate family butler Benson (played by Robert Guillaume) getting off a few wisecracks before hell literally breaks loose.
Harris’ devotion to sitcom patter and shtick is also evident in the scene between Eunice and Dutch, in which neither of them realizes that they need to pick up the phone to talk to each other through the prison barricade, as guest star Dick Miller hovers in the background, agitated because the two lovers can’t stop smudging his clean glass.
It’s even more evident in the scene between Billy and his cult-bound crush Lisa, which is filled with vaudeville-ready slapstick as Billy keeps nervously knocking his food onto the floor and onto her. (Though I have to confess that whenever I watch this scene, I get distracted by the man wearing the Kansas City Royals jacket in the background, which is as much a signifier of “the late ’70s” as any of the other fashions in the episode.)
Episode 44 also features a prime example of how Soap would weave the dramatic in with the comic. Mary’s sons Jodie (Billy Crystal) and Danny (Ted Wass) trick her into coming over so that she can hear directly from Burt’s secretary Sally that she only pretended to have an affair with Burt, because she was being blackmailed by an old Tate/Campbell family enemy, who has a copy of a porno loop Sally appeared in. Mary makes a joke about Sally being afraid of film critic Pauline Kael (as much a part of ’70s culture as the Royals), and as she peeks at the porno, Mary asks Sally questions like, “Weren’t you cold?” and, “Did you know the man in the mask?” (The answer to the latter: “Eventually.”) Then Burt and Mary are reconciled at last, in a tender moment.
The attempt at sentimentality is no aberration. Soap turned on a dime like that multiple times an episode, pivoting between broad comedy and genuine pathos.
In his 2004 book Genre And Television: From Cop Shows To Cartoons In American Culture, Jason Mittell writes at length about Soap, drawing on his own research and on interviews he conducted with Harris and her husband/co-producer Paul Junger Witt. Mittell contextualizes Soap within the history of ABC at the time, which was enjoying the ratings boost that programming guru Fred Silverman brought with him, via sexy escapist fare like Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Three’s Company. Mittell also writes about the Newsweek article that ran months before Soap debuted, which touched off the series of protests that led to some ABC affiliates dropping Soap from their schedules sight unseen, and others scheduling it to run later at night. (Shades of the NYPD Blue controversy a decade later, or The Playboy Club recently.) As Mittell puts it:
The situation comedy was also in a transitional phase in the late-1970s. After the “turn toward relevance” of early-1970s sitcoms like All In The Family and M*A*S*H*, another vein of more escapist sitcoms emerged in the mid-1970s. Typified by ABC’s hits Happy Days and Laverne And Shirley, these programs offered an explicitly nostalgic emphasis on humor over social critique, reaching out to young audiences through physical humor and feel-good affirmation, instead of targeting quality audiences through relevant issues of the time or satire. Despite this shift among top-rated sitcoms, the genre clearly had dual identities in the mid-1970s, featuring both critical and reinforcing visions of American culture and families. While neither interpretation of the genre’s norms was uniformly applicable, clearly the sitcom worked as a legitimate site of both social commentary and escapism during this era.
The problem for Soap was that its critics weren’t sure what to make of this mixed tone—or the racy subject matter. As Mittell reports, one ABC affiliate head gave an interview in which he said that the topics Soap was planning to tackle were inappropriate for comedy. Silverman countered that the storylines on the show would take time to play out, and that no one should judge Soap’s attitude toward its characters or their “sins” until they saw what became of them. Christianity Today picked up on this and complained, “Retribution for immoral behavior may not come for nine episodes and then even some regular viewers might miss the point since the crime and the punishment were separated by nine weeks.” Meanwhile, people on the left worried about what “retribution” might mean for some of these characters—especially Jodie, whose homosexuality seemed to be flexible depending on what the plot required. Overall, the protests had an effect, even after they died down. Though Soap performed solidly in the ratings for all of its four seasons, the show had trouble locking down sponsors, and was cancelled with major plotlines still unresolved.
There are multiple chicken-egg dilemmas when it comes to Soap. Were the storylines so sensationalistic because of the genre the creators were parodying, or did they pick this genre so that they could tell these kinds of stories? Did they cheapen serious topics by turning them into fodder for punchlines, or did they make those topics more palatable to the viewer by finding their humorous side?
From what I’ve read in Mittell’s book and elsewhere—as well as from my own experiences with Soap as a child and as an adult, and from Harris’ post-Soap career as the creator of The Golden Girls and Empty Nest—Soap was meant first and foremost as entertainment, not incitement. Harris embraced hot-button issues even in her tamer shows, but her main interest was in creating characters that audiences would respond to and would enjoy spending time with. One of the turning points of Soap came about a third of the way through season one, when ventriloquist Jay Johnson joined the cast as Chuck Campbell, Burt’s son from a prior marriage, who would let his dummy “Bob” speak on his behalf. Prior to Johnson’s arrival, Harris allowed the show’s characters to be unattractively nasty to each other, but after he joined the cast, Harris shifted the insults to Bob, thereby maintaining Soap’s serrated edge while freeing up the cast to react to their ridiculous problems with more subtle humanity.
Some may see this reversion to a comfortable, TV-friendly mode to be a fundamental flaw in a mass medium. For me, it’s an example of how adherence to form can allow creators to smuggle in content. When I was a boy, I watched Soap because it looked and felt like television, much like I read my dad’s Doonesbury collections because they looked and felt like comics. The inherent pleasures of the form carried me through material that otherwise might not have interested me: politics, social ills, adult relationship troubles, etc. I can’t even say that Soap dealt with those issues in a complex way—at least not like Doonesbury did—but in those cases where it merely paid lip service to “social relevance,” Soap proved that form could thrive despite content. The soapiness of Soap was inherently enjoyable, no matter what the actual stories were about. Or, to quote Mittell, “Even though the parodic mode of the show injects humor into narrative events, the emotional impact and character richness are still significant; soap opera conventions are still pleasurably ‘intact,’ even though they are parodied and mixed with comedy, as audiences care about these characters while they laugh at them.”
There were trade-offs, though. Because of Soap, before I had turned 10 I’d already heard people on TV talking about adultery and homosexuality—topics that, it turns out, I could handle with maturity. But toys flying around a nursery? That image stuck in my brain for years, making me keep my head tucked under the covers at night, lest I catch another glimpse what was going on in the dark while I should’ve been asleep.
Note: Soap didn’t use titles, or chapter headings. I’ve called this episode “episode 44” because it was the 44th one to air. However, the 26th episode to air—the season two première—was an hour long, and in syndication is broken into two. So I could’ve just as easily have called it “episode 45.”
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Cheers, “Fortune And Men’s Weight”