Thursday, September 13, 2007

 

This was the story of two sisters


By Edward Copeland
Recently, when my young nieces were visiting, I discovered they were huge fans of a TV show called Hannah Montana, which I'd never even heard of before. It seemed like a show with understandable appeal for kids around 10 and 11. Of course, when I was a kid, my tastes were admittedly odd and probably my favorite TV show when I was that age was the bawdy nighttime sitcom Soap, which premiered 30 years ago today.



The above photo was one of two credit openings the series tended to use. The other one had the assembled family turning to fisticuffs, but I always preferred the one where the roof caved in. In fact, as a youngster I was so obsessed with this show that at my 10th birthday party, I insisted that the assembled guests pose in a similar setup for a photo. Soap managed to earn controversy before it even aired by, as happens in most cases of would-be censorship, people who hadn't even seen it and declared it to have scenes that it didn't have. Thankfully, it survived the attacks of the would-be moralists at first, though the likes of Donald Wildmon ended up killing the sitcom in the end. It's a shame. While its quality certainly was on the decline in its fourth season, it at least deserved the chance to resolve the cliffhangers with which it left faithful viewers hanging.

I'm not sure I can explain what attracted me to Soap in the first place or what made it so special for someone my age. I didn't inherit from my parents: I always was a more avid viewer than they were. In fact, my obsession in the pre-VCR days even led me to tape record episodes so I could listen to them over and over again, to the point that still today I can recite some scenes, such as Burt's monologue before his abduction by aliens, verbatim. When it plays in syndication, I can still remember the lines that got cut so more commercials could be squeezed in. One thing that I think is forgotten about Soap is not only that it provided hours of laughter for its viewers but it also was capable of producing real pathos as well. Granted, I was a kid at the time, but I freely admit that the show made me cry more than once, especially when it appeared at the end of season three that Jessica Tate (the great Katherine Helmond) had died. You think I would have known better than to think they'd kill off one of their main stars, especially coming soon after Burt Campbell (Richard Mulligan) was mistakenly told he was going to die, only to learn it was a false alarm. However, Jessica was different: She was in the hospital, she was growing weaker and her heart monitor flatlined: What else could I assume? Besides, unlike most sitcoms, people did die regularly on Soap.

Sure, Chuckles bit the dust on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Henry Blake went down in a plane on one of the most memorable episodes of M*A*S*H, but death appeared frequently on Soap. It may have often been played for laughs such as with the murder of Peter Campbell (Robert Urich) in the first season or the death of the bitter mother (Doris Roberts) of fallen priest Tim Flotsky (Sal Viscuso). However, deaths also meant something, most notably when Elaine (Dinah Manoff) was shot to death in season two. Her character was a great one: Danny (Ted Wass) had to marry her to get out of the mob and she started out as truly deplorable person, but eventually Danny and the Campbells found the true, lovely person inside, only to have her kidnapped and then shot by her abductors as she tried to escape, making it back to the Campbell house just in time to die in Danny's arms. It remains a moving scene today. Looking back on the show 30 years later, it's somewhat astounding to see how a show with a studio audience (and presumably some laughtrack sweetening) could so easily switch from wackiness to heartwarming, often within the same episode or even the same scene.

Then again, back then live audiences and laughtracks actually allowed for variation. As I've complained many times before, I can't watch new series with laughtracks because these days, every laugh is the same exact laugh, no matter the size of the joke. Soap had huge bursts of laughter, quiet titters and giggles, the whole shebang. However, I don't want to downplay the laughs because Soap was and is foremost a comedy and a hilarious one at that. Watching it today, when the "standards" are much lower, some of the lines they got away with are still slightly shocking. When John Hillerman made a guest appearance in the third season as a divorced minister counseling Jessica and Chester (Robert Mandan) about Chester's chronic infidelity, I'm still amazed that the network censors let them get away with Hillerman's description of his wife's infidelity. It seems a man had come to their house to install some new carpeting and "obviously confused about what he was there to lay," he said, took off with his wife and left him with multiple rolls of shag carpeting. Hillerman wasn't the only notable actor who made guest appearances on Soap, though some appeared well before they were known.

The great character actor Charles Lane, who just passed away earlier this year at the age of 102, portrayed Judge Petrillo, who presided over Jessica's trial for killing Peter Campbell back when he was a spry 72. Before he was Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard, Sorrell Booke played Elaine's gangster father Mr. Leftkowitz. Before working together on WKRP in Cincinnati, Gordon Jump played bumbling Chief of Police Tinkler and Howard Hesseman portrayed the prosecutor in Jessica's trial. Joe Mantegna was hysterical as Juan One, El Puerco's right-hand man in the final season. Before he was Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund appeared twice as a member of the religious cult that held Billy (Jimmy Baio) hostage. One of the most touching guest appearances came in season 1, when Harold Gould played Barney, Jodie's roommate when he checked into the hospital for a sex change. Oscar nominee Jack Gilford even appeared in season 3 as Saul of biblical fame whom Burt meets on the aliens' spaceship.

Still, it was the amazing ensemble of regulars, which seemed to grow with each season, that made Soap stand out. The cast was so large that, like real afternoon soap operas, they had to be listed in an alphabetical roll at the end of each episode. First and foremost for me was the brilliant Richard Mulligan as Burt Campbell. His slapstick-like moves almost made it seem as if he were made of rubber. He was just as gifted at the comedy as he was in the more dramatic moments. In the final season, he even was able to make Burt a tad unlikable as his fame as a baseball bat-swinging sheriff made him a celebrity to the point that he ignored his family. Still, Mulligan's highpoint was season 3 (for which he won a well-deserved Emmy, though an actors strike prevented him from collecting it). In the course of the season, he played Burt, his sex-obsessed alien clone, thought he was dying and then began his run for sheriff. His great partner Cathryn Damon as his wife Mary also won that year.

The only other Soap performer to earn Emmy recognition was the great Robert Guillaume as Benson in season 2. Guillaume managed to make the sarcastic butler a three-dimensional character that defied any stereotypical elements before he was spun off into his own show Benson, where his character bore little resemblance to the Benson I'd grown to love. Benson's two employers weren't as fortunate. Katherine Helmond's phenomenal work as the daffy Jessica was nominated several times, but she failed to ever take the prize while Robert Mandan's undervalued work as her philandering husband Chester never even managed to secure an Emmy nomination. The cast contained much other great work throughout its four seasons. There was the late Arthur Peterson as the usually out-of-it Major, father of Mary and Jessica, who always managed to surprise when he'd pop up with moments of lucidty. There was the always crass but immensely fun Jay Johnson as Burt's son Chuck and his constant companion, his ventriloquist dummy Bob, who was the smarter of the two. Johnson just won a Tony this year for his one-man Broadway show featuring his gifts. Billy Crystal first made a name for himself as Mary's son Jodie, the first regular gay character on prime time TV, though it was an extremely bumpy first attempt (as Ross Ruediger explored last year) as Jodie started as a crossdresser who wanted a sex change, then had an affair with a woman, became a father, thought about dating his lesbian roommate before falling for another woman and seeking a psychiatrist's help to "cure" his homosexuality. The last we saw of Jodie, the shrink had hypnotized him into a past life, where he was stuck in the guise of an old Jewish man. Ted Wass and Donnelly Rhodes successfully transformed their characters of Mary's other son Danny and Chester's prison cellmate Dutch from tough guys into dumbbells without skipping too many beats in the process. Then there were the short-timers, such as the all-too-brief presence on the show of John Byner as Detective Donohue, hired to find the miss Chester before falling in love with Jessica. Of course, perhaps the actor who had the most uneviable task was the late Roscoe Lee Browne, who had to play Saunders, the butler who came after Benson, but Browne made the part his own. Saunders was erudite (and even had his own mercenary secrets), making him far removed from Benson, though he arrived late in season 3, so we didn't get to know him as well before the show met its untimely end.


What always struck me as hilarious about Soap was its unwitting influence on real soap operas. It was able to spin outlandish storylines, such as the possession of Corrine's baby by the devil, obviously influenced by the recent hit film The Exorcist. More than a decade later, the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives did its own possession story involving its fabled character of Marlena, though I guess they didn't realize that the Soap version was played mostly for laughs. Even earlier than that, the short-lived Dynasty spinoff The Colbys had Fallon abducted by a spaceship, but they just placed her back on Earth and had no one believe her. They didn't go so far as to create aliens or clones such as the ones that came with Burt's storyline. (However, the daytime soap Guiding Light would later do a clone storyline, though it was completely human and "science" based. Still, what angers me to this day is what happened to the series in its fourth season.

It was abruptly pulled off the air later to return with promotional spots by an ominous announcer saying it was controversial (four seasons in? Was this Wildmon or an ABC publicity stunt?) and prompting viewers to call or write with their view about whether the series should stay on the air. When it returned, the remainder of the series' episodes were aired in one-hour blocks, though they were really two episodes spliced together. Whether the country's would-be moral arbiters or ABC itself forced the show off the air, it at least deserved an ending. Jodie still thought he was an old Jewish man; Burt was walking into an ambush; Chester had found his new wife Annie (Nancy Dolman) in bed with Danny and was about to shoot them; Mary's baby could be an alien; and Jessica, kidnapped by Latin American thugs, was in front of a firing squad and apparently shot. They did try to resolve Jessica's cliffhanger, in a way, on an episode of Benson. They had her appear as a ghost, trying to do a good deed to get into heaven, though they hedged their bet by having Jessica say she might be in a coma somewhere.

Unfortunately, we'll never get an answer now. Mulligan and Damon died a long time ago and there certainly is no cry now for a wrapup. The entire series is on DVD, but the extras are few and far between. They didn't even include the recap specials that preceded each new season. The one before season 4 especially deserved a spot on the DVD since it featured Bea Arthur as Jessica's heavenly guide and explained how she talked her way back to life. Since I wrote this, we've also lost Arthur Peterson and Nancy Dolman (and Bea Arthur as well, not that her one-shot character was crucial to wrap up stories). Confused? I guess we Soap fans always will be.


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Comments:
Great article, Ed.

Soap premiered when I was in the fourth grade. I wasn't allowed to watch it because of those dreaded eight words: Due to mature subject matter, Parental Discretion Advised. As soon as those words popped up on anything, my folks wouldn't let me watch. The only exception was the ABC Sunday Night Movie showings of 007 films. It's odd because, from your description, nothing occurred on Soap that I didn't see on All My Children or One Life to Live, both of which I was allowed to watch.

I think Crystal's gay character was the primary reason I wasn't allowed to watch Soap, though from your description, he sounds like a lousy example of homosexuality. Jody belongs in the half-assed homosexual hall of fame along with Steven Carrington.

I remember the controversy and the numerous clashes with Wildmon and the Moral Majority over 70's shows. Some things never change, though the stuff they were complaining about then is tame in comparison to what's on TV now. I guess religious folks don't know how to turn their fucking television sets off or to a different channel.

When Soap was on in repeats, I tried watching it but could not get into it at all. It made me think of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, another show I couldn't get into when the local affiliate ran it years later.
 
I'm always torn about Jodie. His character was truly a landmark for TV at the same time that it wasn't a particularly good portrayal of a gay man. Baby steps, I suppose. However, at least they didn't do like they did on Dynasty and have either a relative or a band of armed revolutionaries kill off any boyfriend he got.
 
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Great write-up! I'm glad people still remember and appreciate the show.
 
I bought the first series a few years ago on a recommendation and thought it was brilliant. I subsequently bought and watched the others too.

You are absolutely right, Edward, about how SOAP could go from farcical to heart-breaking (Jodie's time in the hospital, Danny's relationship with Elaine and the two sisters' reminiscences) in an instant. It was a very intelligent series.

For me SOAP and THE SIMPSONS are the titans of American Television Comedy.
 
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