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Soap: The Complete First Season (DVD)


Soap: The Complete First Season (DVD)

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Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and countless radio comics parodied soap operas well before Soap hit the air in 1977, but none caused the same kind of uproar. Even before its first broadcast, leaks about the sitcom's first-season storylines–involving Mafia hit men, impotent and/or philandering husbands, a promiscuous woman in love with her priest, and a gay character contemplating a sex change–upset everyone from right-wing moral guardians to gay-rights groups. Years later, those same first-season episodes are available in a bare-bones three-DVD set, and though they're every bit as risqué as they were in 1977, the fairer elements that kept the show on the air for four years are also plainly evident. For starters, Soap still works as a soap opera. The series took two sisters, one rich and ditzy (Katherine Helmond) and one working-class and practical (Cathryn Damon), and used their class differences and tangled family relationships as a jumping-off point for at least a dozen first-season storylines. Characters are killed, go crazy, and get embroiled in political scandals and murder trials, and creator/scriptwriter Susan Harris moves all their stories along with ample twists and cliffhangers. But she also shows an interest, common to sitcoms of the era, in the comic and dramatic possibilities of strong personalities bouncing off each other on a well-lit, well-dressed stage. Some of her personalities grate: Richard Mulligan's spasmodic performance as Damon's husband is more irritating than funny, as is Ted Wass as Damon's dim gangster son and Inga Swenson as Damon and Helmond's scheming sister-in-law. But aside from the lead actresses, who are surprisingly sweet in their scenes together, Harris had three other masterstrokes of casting. Billy Crystal's celebrated turn as Damon's gay son (the first openly gay ongoing character on a prime-time sitcom) gets muddled early on by that justly derided sex-change subplot, but he quickly finds the precise note of gentility and neediness, with a drop of acid humor. Robert Guillaume, as Helmond's family butler, tries too hard at times to be a sassy Richard Pryor type, but his deadpan disgust provides a respite from Soap's antic tone. And about a third of the way through season one, ventriloquist Jay Johnson joins the cast as Mulligan's son from a prior marriage, a shy nightclub performer who lets his dummy "Bob" do all the talking. Prior to Johnson's arrival, Harris had most of her characters being unattractively nasty to each other, but when he joins the cast, Harris shifts all the insults to Bob, thereby maintaining Soap's sharp edge while freeing up the cast to react to their ridiculous problems with subtle humanity. That's how the show became a sensation, and why it remains addictive.