I have spent most of my 4th Of July weekend re-watching Susan Harris’ late 70s/early 80s masterpiece, SOAP.
I first watched SOAP in syndication, in the late 1980s, but I’m pretty sure that I may have missed some episodes, so this is my first deliberate start-to-finish viewing. I bought the complete series on DVD a few years back, but binge-watching four seasons of a network TV series is a daunting proposition. There are 93 in total and I just finished Season One (25 episodes).
I wish SOAP was available to stream— it seems that being available to stream is the determining factor these days as to whether older shows are re-discovered or consigned to cultural oblivion. Certainly, shows like Cheers have benefited from being on Netflix, and HBOGO has allowed people to keep The Sopranos and Deadwood in the conversation long after they’ve finished. (I’m not sure what contractual hiccup has kept HBO’s two most important comedies, Larry Sanders and Mr. Show, from being on HBO GO but someone needs to fix that ASAP.)
I wish that Mitch Hurwitz would put in a good word to Netflix about re-acquiring streaming rights to SOAP, since it is the clear precursor to Arrested Development. I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but it bears repeating: fearless taboo-busting, serialized storytelling, a cheerful narrator recapping the plot over jaunty theme music, a corrupt adulterous patriarch being investigated by the SEC, a black ventriloquist’s puppet that people can’t stop trying to strangle, incest that isn’t-quite-incest… Did I mention that Hurwitz cut his teeth as a writer on Golden Girls, the hit show also created by Susan Harris?
The biggest similarity is that both shows are brilliant and both of them broke new ground in Comedy.
SOAP still feels genuinely dangerous. There are missteps, for instance, in the handling of Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie— the first openly gay character on television to be portrayed as a fully-realized human being instead of a punchline— but I’d argue that these are the result of the show’s courageousness in dealing with subject matter that hadn’t really been handled like this before. The show’s core humanity, and its commitment to taking its ridiculous characters seriously, allows it a lot of leeway to take risks with making jokes about controversial things. The fact that this show isn’t a nightmare of offensiveness 40 years later is a tribute to what a smart writer Susan Harris is.
(One of the best improv classes I ever took at UCB was when my 401 teacher Curtis Gwinn reacted to an especially offensive improv set by delivering a 45-minute lecture on how you can do ANYTHING in Comedy “but it can’t just be nihilism… it has to have a REASON.” SOAP is a great example of that in practice. There are jokes that are dated, and attitudes that have not aged well, but the show treats its characters with such respect underneath all the outrageousness that it can afford to make the occasional mistake and all is forgiven, instantly. At least that’s how I see it.)
And the cast: Katherine Helmond, Robert Guillaume and Richard Mulligan are three stand-outs, giving career-best performances in a generally strong ensemble, with a guest roles played by some of the funniest character actors of the late 1970s, many of whom would end up with their own shows just a few years later.
I am going to finish watching these DVDs and then start loaning them around to people. I wish that people were posting GIFs from SOAP and talking about how great it is. And I wish that some streaming service would pick up all 4 seasons so that everybody would start watching this great, great show.
[RELATED: I just ordered a bootleg dvd set of the entire series run of the Martin Mull/Fred Willard fake talk show Fernwood 2 Nite (and its 2nd season as America 2-Nite), which isn’t available in any legit form. As far as I can tell, it has a similar role to the SOAP/AD lineage, only with shows like Larry Sanders and Alan Partridge. So there goes all my free time, forever. I am also working on stuff of my own, but if none of that amounts to anything, at least I will have enjoyed these programs.]
I found some weird site streaming episodes of Soap a few years ago, but I sort of jumped in willy nilly and didn’t commit, which was too bad because I looooved Soap when it was on Comedy Central in the afternoon in the late 90s. It took over for Kids in the Hall, at some point, so it must have been really good for me not to loathe it resentfully.