Jun 19, 2010

An Ode to "Soap"

Through the veins of TV history, there have been numerous shows that have had an iconic impact on society. Somehow, they include I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H*, Seinfeld, and even The Simpsons. While all have their moments of brilliance, it also reminds you of those other shows that modern generations don't know about. You know, shows that pushed the limit while still being entertaining and well scripted.

I stand by this as I have for almost two years now... I think Soap is one of the BEST shows in the writing department. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of fat and boring parts, but unlike Seinfeld or I Love Lucy, this show was created for the audience with a knack for tongue-in-cheek comedy and a need for obsession, for to see every episode is to complete the story.
Most of those who have loved this show has discovered by the end of season 4, that the questions were never really answered on the next episode of Soap. Instead, the show was canceled due to issues with sponsors. Writer Susan Harris claims that she wanted a 5 season arch in the story and by not completing it, has left me scrounging the internet for clues.

I cannot remember the first time I ever saw Soap other than it was with my mother at her house. She rented it from Netflix after someone brought it up. She thought it would be cool to introduce me to some old school culture. I knew of Billy Crystal years prior to seeing this, but at the time, it was my only real draw to the show.
The score hadn't yet been instilled in my head. The amazing Rowdy Rod Roddy hadn't narrated the cliffhangers with such brilliance. Most importantly, I hadn't yet met the Campbells and the Tates, two of the most dysfunctional families on television.

The most brilliant aspect of the show is that it is a spot on parody of the soap opera world. The crazy conflicts, the lame excuses... they are all here in a kind of delectably trashy way. While it never said "We're making fun of Days of Our Lives here!", it instead went for original plots and acquired the drama through character, an element that majority of the parody shows like Drawn Together forgot about.
True, there are numerous, brilliant casts, but even if you haven't heard of half of these names, by the end of the day, you'll wish you did. Hell, Billy Crystal isn't even the best one.

The incredible part is how the story starts is already very twisted (caution, spoilers). Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and her daughter Corrine Tate (Diane Conova) are sleeping with the same tennis coach who turns out to be Jessica's sister Mary Campbell's (Cathryn Damon) husband Burt's (Richard Mulligan) son. Burt has also killed Mary's ex-husband and want to leave the mafia that he is a part of by having to kill his son Danny (Ted Wass). This doesn't include Burt's other sons, the homosexual Jodi (Billy Crystal) or the ventriloquist Bob (Jay Johnson). All the while, Jessica's husband Chester (Robert Mandan) is having an affair at work, their daughter Eunice (Jennifer Salt) is dating a politician that is getting blackmailed, their son Billy (Jimmy Baio) wonders why he's being ignored, Jessica's father, the Major (Arthur Peterson) still thinks it's World War II, and their butler Benson (Robert Guillame) refuses to play their games.

Oddly enough, this is all covered in the first few episodes. However, with a start this brilliant, and I assure you, it's very funny and soap opera-like, Soap already had my heart. Over the next 85 episodes, I saw the family become more twisted as they suffered mental illnesses, alien abductions, and possessed babies. Somehow, the amazing cast manages to pull this off with so much conviction, that most of the time, it seems too normal.
Like all good soap operas, it's hard to just pick up on this show weeks later. You have to be pretty devout to this show to know what is going on. While I never skipped a single episode, I still needed occasional reminders to help keep me in time with the show. It does drag at certain points and sometimes you can notice absolute moments of filler, but unlike most shows, what makes this brilliant is the overlapping plots all make sense and even though an average episode could feature five different story lines, it still works and it's very entertaining.
I would also like to note this show has some of the best uses in a comedy for still frame pictures. I have honestly laughed and felt suspense by those still frames.

I don't find all the characters to have been exciting, but all were crucial to keep the story wacky and even a bit serious. I felt this blend was it's strongest factor in almost making it a soap opera itself while being a parody simultaneously.
My favorite? The one I grew closest to was definitely Burt Campbell. I felt Richard Mulligan was the undaunted star of the show after being convinced he was invisible, abducted by aliens, sexually inadequate, and still managed to become sheriff in season 4. The neurotic approach Mulligan brought to the character made us believe every moment of it and it was very fun to watch. He practically stole every scene he was in.
Other notes are Jessica, whose naivety could leave a laugh track going long after the batteries wear out. Her lack of comprehension in serious matters manages to uncover more mental trauma than a fight between characters could.
Sure, Jodi had some excellent story lines involving sexuality, sex changes, and even having a baby, but he eventually became more of a straight man, defending stuff as opposed to being a funny caricature of gays. It overall worked for the best and gave the show more depth than you could imagine.
And Benson? Why he left at the end of season 3 is beyond me. It was probably for the spin off show Benson, which I am going to see... eventually.

However, to describe Soap is not the same as living Soap. While today, you have shows like Lost that require close attention to detail, very few comedies need that. The plots are usually dispensable and don't effect next week. This is what makes Soap even more of a special show and deserves more credit in not only pushing elements of comedy we see today in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or South Park, but overall pushing how we can see comedy.
True, it wasn't the best show of it's time, but it was very groundbreaking in the taboo pushing and making the bizarre normal. It wasn't crass about majority of the issues and in the end, it played to make the show seem more relative. It's twisted fun that if you're obsessive enough, could be dissected down to the last second and still have questions you wish were answered.

Thank you, Susan Harris, for bringing one of the greatest written shows of all time to life every week and making me, a kid a few generations down the line, fall in love and feel inspired by the lunacy that is sadly ignored by the mainstream. I think this show especially deserves more love and like Taxi should be pinnacle achievements of comedy in the mid-70's/early-80's.

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