Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soap: The Granddaddy of Continuity Comedy

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 27, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

In this age of DVD box sets, Youtube, and Hulu, television fans finally have full and immediate access to their favourite TV series, even ones that have been off the air for decades. As good as current television often is, sometimes the most satisfying viewing can come from settling in front of the TV, or computer, and immersing yourself in a classic series. Last week, frustrated by the lack of innovation in this fall season’s new sitcoms (and with all due respect to the continuing efforts of William Shatner), I pulled a much-loved series off the shelf and looked back at it, for the first time in decades. The series that caught my eye this time was Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977-81.

Soap was prime time television’s first serial comedy. The brainchild of the production team of Susan Harris, Paul Witt, and Tony Thomas (perhaps most famous for creating the immensely successful Golden Girls in the 80s), Soap was a parody of daytime soap operas which wove together the serialized and often sensationalized narrative of a soap with the conventions of a weekly situation comedy. The result was like nothing television had ever seen before, and quite frankly, since.  I have always remembered the show fondly but, having watched it mainly as a kid, few but the most exaggerated details of it remained in my memory. What I recalled were the over-the-top characters, the zany situations, and, well to be honest, the ventriloquist dummy. What has surprised me in the past week has been the brilliant writing, the stunning comedic acting, and the depth and humanity of all of its characters. Some sitcoms don’t age well, while others become more impressive even decades after their original run. The best of them fall into two camps: groundbreaking ones which change the genre forever, thereby setting the stage for the success of many subsequent series, and other shows which are so startlingly original that they have produced no real successors. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971-79) falls firmly in the latter camp: though the show is largely credited for the sudden boom in ethnic sitcoms of the 70s, none ever approached the stark political frankness of the show that inspired them. Even today, almost 40 years later, any episode from the first season of All in the Family can leave a contemporary television viewer speechless in terms of the bluntness and honesty of its political content. I’m now convinced that Soap, despite its disarming lack of pretension and apparently narrow mandate, falls into that same category.

Robert Guillaume & Katherine Helmond
As the show’s announcer would tell at the beginning of every episode Soap tells “the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell.” Each sister comes with an equally dysfunctional family, and over the course of the show’s run, we would bear witness to murder, marital infidelity, insanity, escaped criminals, amnesia, alien abductions, demon possession and much more. With what was probably one of the best ensemble casts in the history of television (the cast included Billy Crystal, Katherine Helmond, Robert Guillaume, Richard Mulligan, and for its first season Robert Urich, among others), the show quickly demonstrated that it was much more than a simple parody of soap operas. With its combination of larger-than-life melodrama and physical comedy, Soap would regularly offer exquisite moments of beauty and touching tenderness. The sincerity and humanity of these moments pack a serious emotional punch, as suicide attempts and the pain of infidelity are acted out against a backdrop of cartoonish absurdity.

Susan Harris
The real force behind the show was writer/creator Susan Harris, who wrote or co-wrote every episode of the show’s four seasons. Harris, having written the famous 1972 episode of Maude, where she decides to go through with an abortion, was no stranger to scandal.  Boasting one of network television’s first gay main characters (Jodie Dallas, portrayed by a young, talented Billy Crystal) and a subplot involving the attempted seduction of a Catholic priest, Soap might be one of the first TV shows ever to be picketed before an episode even aired! Soap would survive the initial fervour against it, however ultimately, despite consistently solid ratings, the ongoing controversy would keep advertisers away, and ABC was compelled to unceremoniously cancel the show after four seasons. (As Harris would describe it years later: “If Jerry Falwell had not existed Soap could have gone on for years.”)

Though cut short in mid-story (the show ends with a main character literally standing in front of a South American firing squad!), those four seasons are a delight from start to finish. Though clearly original in terms of its content, it is perhaps only in retrospect that the true brilliance of the show can be perceived. Its main conceit of parodying soap operas gave it a mandate to create prime time’s first continuity-based comedy series, an innovation that would itself take decades to firmly establish itself in the sitcom genre. To put this in proper perspective, it should be recalled that Soap premiered in the same year and on the same network as Three’s Company! A comparison of these two sitcoms could fill a book, but stunning contrasts of social and comedic sensibilities aside, the real innovations of Soap are found in its form.

With the exception of the great Norman Lear comedies of the 70s, the sitcom is often the epitome of reset TV. And if any show represents the Platonic ideal of the American sitcom, it's Three’s Company. Learning its lessons from the successful comedies of the 60s, the ideal sitcom is a structurally amnesiac genre: every episode designed to stand firmly on its own, and characters rarely even remembering past experiences, far less learning from them. Everything the viewer needs to know about the show can be picked up in the opening credits, and (in the case of Three’s Company) every episode is basically the same comedy of errors, miscalculation, and misunderstanding. Characters are set and stories are self-contained, deliberately designed to tie up all loose-ends every half-hour.

It is in this context that Soap appeared in 1977, daring its viewers to follow a complicated, on-going and often season-long storyline. Soap was a sitcom where the extraordinary events of last week’s or last season’s episode didn’t disappear from the characters’ lives with the closing credits. Before the first season even began, the show’s creators had apparently mapped out several years worth of storylines for its characters. The open-ended narrative would pick up from week to week precisely where it left off, giving the series licence to tell slower stories, and allowing its characters to grow and learn, even when those lessons would led to consequences that would exceed a 30-minute telling. For both comedic and dramatic purposes, there was rarely a scene that didn’t call back to past events, or call forward, positing another unresolved tension or mystery. It would be another 12 years before Seinfeld would begin to flirt with continuity for comic effect (interweaving the long pay-off with its standalone storylines), and another 27 years for the gold standard of continuity sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother, to premiere on CBS.

In 2007, Soap rightly earned a spot in Time Magazine’s “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.” We are perhaps still reaping the benefits of its too-short run. Soap: The Complete Series is available on DVD.