Soap (ABC 1977-1981, Billy Crystal, Richard Mulligan)

‘You want me to get that?’

The butler named Benson wasn’t exactly the most eager of door-openers’this being his patent response when the doorbell rang out. But neglecting butlerian duties was just the tip of the iceberg. Soap touched on impotence, transsexuality, homosexuality, racism, extramarital affairs, single parenting, organized crime, aliens, and religion. And this was a late 70’s sitcom.

Well, a late 70’s sitcom designed to satirize cheesy daytime soap operas’which accounts for that girth of ‘issues.’ Soap operas rarely let plausibility or shock value get in the way of their plotlines, and so neither did Soap. Created by Susan Harris (later of shows like Benson, The Golden Girls and Empty Nest), Soap garnered a load of problematic publicity before it ever saw any airtime, thanks to a misleading Newsweek article that promised when the show did debut, goings-on would include the seduction of a Catholic priest in a confessional. This was all a bevy of religious groups needed to set some fervent boycotts in motion, and some believe the show never quite recovered from the preemptive witch-hunt. It was aired after the traditional ‘family hour’ in less-watched time shots, and early on, it carried a parental discretion notice with it. But past all the headlines and boycotts and advertisers with cold feet was a trailblazing sitcom, with a unique eye for inter-family outrageousness that would be heartily emulated on television in years to come.

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Sisters Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell lived in Dunn’s River, Connecticut. The Tate family was loaded, the Campbells were middle class, and both clans were downright nuts. Jessica was married to the loyally disloyal and always short-on-ethics stockbroker Chester. Jessica’s kids were Billy, who would be abducted by a religious cult, and daughters Corrine and Eunice, who was having an extramarital affair with a Senator. And Jessica’s butler was Benson, played by Robert Guillaume, who would later star in the spin-off sitcom named after this wisest of wiseacre butlers.

But the Tates weren’t the only family with a monopoly on (at the time) taboo family traits. Mary was married to the impotent and always double-taking Burt. Her sons were the gay Jodie (played by Billy Crystal) and Danny, a small time mobster. Burt’s ventriloquist son Bob moved in later, always on hand with a sarcastic comment spoken through his hand puppet named Chuck. But despite all of this supposed anti-normality’and herein was the neat trick of the show’there were still family values, and there were still unassailable familial bonds. The show was notorious for shifting tones instantaneously, from outrageous comedy to heartfelt drama in the space of just a line or two.

Like any soap opera, many of the episodes were ‘to be continued’ in nature, and when the curtain finally fell on the show after four seasons, it fell with a cliffhanger that left plenty of unanswered questions (though a few would be answered a few years later on Benson). Soap was anything but typical, from its reception to its plotlines to its legacy’this is a show that stands, albeit a little off-kilter, distinctly on its own.

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production details
USA / ABC – Witt – Thomas – Harris Prod / 78×25 minute episodes 7×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 13 September 1977 – 20 April 1980

Creator/Producer: Susan Harris / Executive Producer: Susan Harris, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas

Robert Mandan as Chester Tate
Katherine Helmond as Jessica Gatling Tate
Diana Canova as Corinne Tate Flotsky (1977-80)
Jennifer Salt as Eunice Tate
Jimmy Baio as Billy Tate
Robert Guillaume as Benson (1977-79)
Arthur Peterson as The Major
Cathryn Damon as Mary Gatling Dallas Campbell
Richard Mulligan as Burt Campbell
Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas
Ted Wass as Danny Dallas
Jay Johnson as Chuck/Bob Campbell
Robert Urich as Peter Campbell (1977)
Kathryn Reynolds as Claire (1977-78)
Richard Libertini as The Godfather (1977-78)
Bob Seagren as Dennis Phillips (1978)
Sal Viscuso as Father Timothy Flotsky (1977-79)
Rebecca Balding as Carol David (1978-80)
Dinah Manoff as Elaine Lefkowitz (1978-79)
Donnelly Rhodes as Dutch (1978-81)
Caroline McWilliams as Sally (1978-79)
John Byner as Detective Donahue (1978-80)
Randee Heller as Alice (1979)
Peggy Pope as Mrs. David (1979-81)
Candy Azzara as Millie (1979)
Marla Pennington as Leslie Walker (1979-81)
Lynne Moody as Polly Dawson (1979-81)
Roscoe Lee Browne as Saunders (1980-81)
Allan Miller as Dr. Alan Posner (1980-81)
Eugene Roche as Attorney E. Ronald Mallu (1978-81)
Gregory Sierra as Carlos “El Puerco” Valdez (1980-81)
Barbara Rhoades as Maggie Chandler (1980-81)
Nancy Dolman as Annie Selig Tate (1980-81)
Jesse Welles as Gwen (1980-81)
Joe Mantegna as Juan One (1980-81)
Rod Roddy as Announcer

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.