Once upon a time, there was a sitcom on network television that was so scandalous, so polarizing, so completely over the top, that it caused morality groups to clutch their pearls in shock. It forced local television stations to replace the program with their own local shows, so as to not offend their local audience. Oh, the mature themes. Oh, the moral conundrum.
Yep, that was a show called Soap.
Soap was a send-up of every single daytime drama cliche – the interconnected families, the bed-hopping between characters, the murder mysteries with convoluted solutions, all of that. But instead of portraying the storylines as thick, riveting prime-time dramas, Soap treated the setup as comedy. The Tates and the Campbells were full of characters who played their roles as cranked-up as possible – the philandering Chester Tate, whose wife Jessica Tate was cheating on him with a tennis pro, who was also having an affair with Jessica’s daughter Corrine; while Burt Campbell married into Jessica’s sister Mary’s family and now lives with a gay stepson, a gangster stepson and a son who talks through a ventriloquist’s dummy. And that’s just the pilot episode.
And boy, was this show controversial. I remember that in Boston, the local ABC affiliate refused to air Soap in its scheduled timeslot, they instead shoved the program into a late-night slot for its first season. Other channels simply refused to show the program at all. Obviously these morals groups never sat through an episode of Search for Tomorrow or Ryan’s Hope or The Edge of Night, because there was some steamy stuff going on between the commercials for laundry detergent and cake mix.
By happenstance, Soap is now airing on the Tubi streaming network, and I gotta tell you, the show has not aged very well. Some of the show’s comedy has aged very poorly – I’m still getting a bit of whiplash seeing Robert Guillaume’s Benson character working as a sharp-toothed butler, for example – and the show’s heavy reliance on some of the daytime serial tropes makes the program very difficult to watch at times. I mean, there’s a whole “Who Killed Peter Campbell” plotline in the first season that really set the tone for the show’s run, but then after that, it just went from fantastical storyline to fantastical storyline.
I suppose, as an artifact of time, Soap is a snapshot of what was expected of comedy in the 1970’s. I mean, this was airing on the same network as Three’s Company, where the whole concept was that a man could live with two women so long as the man pretended he was gay, so that the landlords wouldn’t think there was some wild sexy stuff going on in the apartment.
In fact, if there was a spiritual sitcom cousin to Soap, it would have to be the Australian drama Number 96, a controversial soap opera that featured nudity and adult themes. Although Soap played the themes for laughs, Number 96 took everything straight. Figuratively and literally.
But back to Soap. Watching it today, nearly 45 years after its original airing, I can see where the show was going, the boundaries it was trying to push, and what it hoped to achieve. It was controversial, it was provocative, and sometimes it was funny.
Today, though … it’s just a curiosity. Definitely worth streaming an episode or three on Tubi, if for no other reason than to travel back in time to when the 1970’s offered a different type of broad sitcom entertainment.