The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Soap (1977-1981, ABC), perhaps the most controversial sitcom of the ’70s. I’m pleased to announce that the entire series has been released on DVD. 

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“This is the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. Jessica lives in a neighborhood known as “rich”. Jessica likes life, the only thing about life she would change if she could, is that she would set it all to music. The Tates have more secrets than they do money. We’re approaching Mary Campbell’s house. Mary, too, likes life. Unfortunately, life doesn’t seem to be too crazy about her. As you can see the Campbell’s don’t have nearly as much money as the Tates. They do, however, have as many secrets.” Soap stars KATHERINE HELMOND as Jessica Tate, CATHRYN DAMON as Mary Campbell, RICHARD MULLIGAN as Burt Campbell, ROBERT MANDAN as Chester Tate, DIANA CANOVA as Corinne Tate, BILLY CRYSTAL as Jodie Dallas, TED WASS as Danny Dallas, JENNIFER SALT as Eunice Tate, ARTHUR PETERSON, JR. as The Major, JIMMY BAIO as Billy Tate, JAY JOHNSON as Chuck (and Bob) Tate, and ROBERT GUIILLAUME as Benson.

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The third (and first successful) series by the powerhouse team of Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas (yes, Marlo’s brother), and Susan Harris, a writer behind early episodes of both All In The Family and Maude (including the infamous two-part ‘abortion episode’), Soap was beset with controversy almost from the beginning. In June 1977, an article appeared in Newsweek, written after several critics and affiliates had screened the first two episodes (which had been produced as a pilot, and re-shot several times due to the re-castings of both Peter and Mary Campbell), in which the author lambasted the series for its salacity and revealed many of the upcoming story lines, as they were given in the “bible” that Witt-Thomas-Harris had created. In addition to the inclusion of a regular homosexual character, the most shocking plot point had one character seducing a Jesuit priest away from his calling. That same month, the L.A. Times got ahold of “the SOAP memo,” which detailed all of the network censor’s requested changes after reading the pilot and bible. As a result of both publications, many churches protested, including Catholics, Methodists, and Southern Baptists, and they mounted a letter writing campaign that eventually saw nearly 32,000 people demanding that ABC cancel the series. (Keep in mind they hadn’t even seen the pilot yet!) Advertisers pulled out, and ABC had to reduce its asking price of 75k per spot down to 40.

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When the first episode aired, nearly 10% of ABC’s affiliates refused to carry the series, with many of them choosing to air it after 11:00PM (a.k.a. after primetime). Of course, the brouhaha led to a ratings hit, with the pilot easily winning its time slot with a 39 share. Soap became one of the most popular shows of the season, and watching these first 25 episodes, it’s understandable: the writing is hilarious. Although it was marketed and referred to often as a primetime parody of soap operas, Harris, in the wonderful Soap book by A.S. Berman that I highly recommend, balks at the label — insisting that the title and structure of the series was not a lampoon of the genre, but rather a chance to write serialized stories, following the characters in extended arcs. In my personal opinion, however, the series works best when viewed as satire, especially when the stories become more and more outrageous, for the bastardizing of the common daytime tropes is a beautiful magnet for comedy. Yet Harris’ view of the her own show is incredibly important to consider, for the growing number of emotional moments (i.e. ones not played for laughs) would otherwise be antithetical to satire, indeed blocking the humor (which I don’t always appreciate), and do seem belonging of something that’s being played more earnestly.

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As for the first season, after a really strong pilot, the series takes about 13 episodes to develop the ensemble and play through the initial story lines that were set up in the premiere; after that, the characters take off and the comedy goes with them. Almost every episode in the winter/spring of ’78 is a winner, beginning a two-year stretch of excellence that earns Soap the distinction of being on the short list of my picks for the funniest sitcoms of the decade. However, choosing individual episodes is tough, due to the intense serialization, which follows multiple stories per episode. (Sometimes only one or two of the stories is commendable, while the others aren’t.) As I find serialization to be a force that can obstruct comedy, it’s fascinating for me to try and reconcile how Soap can use this format to its hilarious gain. The trick was finding the episodes in which most, if not everything, was both comedic and artfully rendered. So I have picked ten offerings that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by Jay Sandrich.

 

01) Episode 1 (Aired: 09/13/77)

Burt is impotent due to guilt about killing Mary’s husband; Jessica has an affair with her tennis instructor.

Written by Susan Harris

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Soap has one of the funniest pilots you’ll ever see, although as noted above, it was originally produced as an hour installment, incorporating what would also become the second episode. While the final scene, in which Jessica ends up in bed with her tennis instructor (who is also shtupping her daughter Corinne), provided the most agony for the censors — the “boff” bit being an unquestionable highlight of both hilarity and raunchiness, the first Campbell kitchen scene, in which we establish that Burt is not getting along with his two stepsons (featuring a hysterical food fight between Burt and Danny), is probably the best of the premiere. Great start for the series.

02) Episode 5 (Aired: 10/13/77)

Eunice and Jodie learn each other’s secrets; Corinne visits Father Tim.

Written by Susan Harris & Tony Lang

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Newsweek‘s tease of a character seducing a Jesuit priest begins in this episode — although it’s nothing like what was anticipated. Rather, Corinne goes to Father Tim’s confessional and tells him how much she loves and wants to be with him. It’s a beautifully written bit, filled with huge laughs (it’s the best of this episode)and far tamer than what the press had been building up in their collective minds. Meanwhile, this episode is also notable for the bonding scene between Eunice and Jodie, who connect over their mutually secret affairs — hers with a Congressman, his with a quarterback. Also, character actress Nita Talbot debuts as one of Peter’s other “clients.”

03) Episode 9 (Aired: 11/15/77)

Jodie checks into the hospital for his sex change; Jessica and Mary catch Chester with his secretary.

Written by Susan Harris & Tony Lang

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Taking a break from being Rhoda and Brenda’s father, Harold Gould makes his first of four appearances as Barney Gerber, Jodie’s roommate in the hospital. Barney is broad and overly Jewish, but the boldness is an asset to the comedy, and while he’ll grow to become more of a fully realized character over the following weeks as he and Jodie become closer, during which Dennis leaves Jodie and he tries to commit suicide — too dark of a place to mine comedy (unless carefully handled) — I think this appearance is Gould’s funniest. The scene with the most laughs involves some of the family coming to visit Jodie in the hospital and comparing their personal secrets.

04) Episode 13 (Aired: 12/13/77)

Everyone is a suspect in Peter Campbell’s murder; Burt and Mary resume their sex life.

Written by Susan Harris

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Another Tate-Campbell gathering, this episode features one that occurs following the murder of Peter Campbell, which launches the show into the second, and comedically superior, half of its first season. Gordon Jump is “Piece of Cholief” Tinker, who questions the family and lets them know that they are all suspects. It’s usually comedic gold when all of the characters get together, and the addition of this buffoon (soon to be over at WKRP In Cincinnati on CBS, which we’ll be covering in October) is a boon. Interestingly, I’ve read some backlash from certain fans regarding the jokiness of this installment, but because everything lands and is well motivated, I don’t feel it’s at the expense of the show’s integrity.

05) Episode 14 (Aired: 12/27/77)

Chester learns about Jessica’s affair with Peter; Eunice and the Congressman are almost caught.

Written by Susan Harris

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Picking up where the previous installment left off, this episode actually aired a week later, as ABC decided to air an hour-long recap of the first 13 episodes on December 20th. (I don’t know if any new material was recorded, or if it was all clip show, but it has never been released or discussed.) There are a lot of really comedically fine moments in this one including the scene in which the philandering Chester gets his comeuppance, as he learns that Jessica was seeing Peter. Judith-Marie Bergan debuts as the Congressman’s (tipsy) wife with a funny scene in which Eunice and the Congressman sneak into the lavatory of an airplane. The show is picking up steam!

06) Episode 16 (Aired: 01/10/78)

Corinne learns that Ingrid is her real mother; the Campbells are interrogated.

Written by Susan Harris

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Although a big fan of Inga Swenson, I don’t find her character humorous, (yes, she’s designed to be an antagonist, but I think she’s also a comedy inhibitor), so this storyline, which begins in the previous installment, is not among my favorites. However, this particular episode is hysterical, and it’s mostly due to the one-time guest appearance by William Daniels as Heinrich Himmel, a private detective whom Ingrid has hired to interrogate the Tates and Campbells for potential dirt. His two scenes are riotous, with his initial one with the Campbells earning the prize of being among the best of the season. Thanks to his character, it’s one of our first classic episodes!

07) Episode 19 (Aired: 02/07/78)

Mallu tries to find family members to testify for Jessica; Mary is advised to have Burt committed.

Written by Susan Harris

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With this fabulous installment, Soap enters a string of episodes that may be the finest it ever produced. Eugene Roche makes his second appearance as the lawyer Chester has hired to defend Jessica. His attempt to find members of the family to testify on her behalf makes for a miraculous scene, in which each of the characters’ quirks and idiosyncrasies are neatly summed up and used for great comedic worth — these people are nuts (especially “the invisible man”, which began in the prior episode). Again, the Ingrid storyline gives Jessica and Corinne a moment that forsakes comedy (unfortunately), but because the rest of the installment is so sharp, this is one of my absolute favorites.

08) Episode 20 (Aired: 02/14/78)

The Godfather blackmails Danny into marrying Elaine; Jessica meets her judge.

Written by Susan Harris

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The hilarity continues as Katherine Helmond’s Jessica is in rare form when she re-meets Howard Hesseman, who makes his debut as the prosecuting attorney (and the twin brother of the lawyer who refused to take her case back in Episode 17). Additionally, Charles Lane is introduced as the judge in Jessica’s trial, and his past relationship with Chester (which cost him $40,000 from bad investment advice) threatens to jeopardize her outcome. But this episode’s excellence also extends into a fan-favorite scene in which Jodie hides Bob in the refrigerator while questioning Chuck about the hate notes that he’s been receiving from Bob. Such lunacy — unparalleled! Probably the best of the season.

09) Episode 21 (Aired: 02/21/78)

Elaine meets Danny’s family; Jessica’s trial begins.

Written by Susan Harris

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This installment is just as hilarious as the one above, as it features more of the series’ funniest material from the first season and many memorable quotables. The show opens with Elaine meeting Danny’s dysfunctional family. Her caustic attitude is a perfect comedic foil for the madness that personifies the Campbells and introduces an arc that will continue through the first quarter of the second season. Meanwhile, Jessica’s trial begins, and Katherine Helmond continues to shine as Soap‘s wacky heroine. Her conduct in the courtroom, although utterly in breach of all protocol, makes for an endless stream of big laughs. Another favorite and MVE candidate.

10) Episode 23 (Aired: 03/14/78)

The Congressman dumps Eunice; Burt confesses to Mary that he killed her first husband.

Written by Susan Harris

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While I do feel that the storytelling at the end of the first season is top notch, the last handful of offerings may not be as consistently hysterical as some of the episodes that we’ve highlighted above, due to all of the cliffhangers towards which they’re forced to gear. This is the third to last episode of the year, and probably the most amusing to occur during Jessica’s trial (following its launch in Episode 21, of course). In addition to the return of Nita Talbot, who testifies against Jessica on the stand, we have the first appearance of the always excitable Doris Roberts as Tim’s devout mother, who’s devastated to learn of his plans to leave the priesthood for Corinne Tate.

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: Episode 2 (Aired: 09/20/77), in which Jodie tells Mary that he plans to have a sex change and the family is shocked to learn that Peter is Burt’s son, Episode 7 (Aired: 11/01/77), in which Chuck and Bob make their debut, Episode 18 (Aired: 01/24/78), in which Burt and Mary share a HILARIOUS bathtub scene in which he demonstrates how he can make himself invisible, and Episode 24 (Aired: 03/21/78), in which Jodie and Carol sleep together. Episode 2 came closest to making today’s list, but the bathtub scene in Episode 18 is among the most guffaw-inducing scenes of the entire series.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Soap goes to…..

Episode 20

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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4 thoughts on “The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season One

  1. SOAP is one of the funniest–although sadly, mostly forgotten now–sitcoms ever produced. Not only did it have a clear and undeniable influence on 2003’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but it may have had the greatest cast of any sitcom of all-time. And I think a special mention needs to be made of Cathryn Damon, who played Mary Campbell. Damon died young, in the late 1980s, and never received proper appreciation for just how perfect her performances were.
    As the “sanest” character in a show that had very few sane characters, Damon always meticulously balanced humor with vulnerability and was, for a show that thrived on cartoonist exaggeration, an incredibly plausible and believable character. I’d put her work on SOAP right up there with any 1970s sitcom actress you’d care to name (Jean Stapleton, Mary Tyler Moore, Cloris Leachman, et. al.).

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      No arguments from me regarding Damon’s talent. For once, I actually think the Academy got it right; her best work (along with Mulligan’s) occurs in Season Three. It is then that I think she overtakes Helmond, who anchors the first two seasons, as the most worthy of the audience’s emotional investment. But stay tuned through the rest of the month for my thoughts on the remaining three seasons (and some of Mary Campbell’s finest moments)…

  2. I remember SOAP, when it premiered, being delayed to 10:30 p.m. (central time), after the 10 p.m. news, in the small southern area where I lived, and the station manager addressing protests about that by saying that we should be grateful they were carrying it at all. Eventually, before the first season was out, they began carrying the show in its regular prime time slot. I’ve read that ABC began putting a lot of pressure on affiliates who did the tape delay thing to stop.

    I liked SOAP, though looking at it now, it takes some hindsight to realize what was considered so shocking about it at the time. I don’t think it quite held up to the end. By the last season, I thought the silliness was getting a little out of hand, but with a premise like this one, I suppose that was inevitable.

    I liked the Benson character on SOAP, but I was never fond of the BENSON spin-off series. I remember usually being bored by it. Of course, I was just a teenager at the time, and your tastes do change as you mature, so maybe I would appreciate it more today.

    • Hi, Steven! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      It’s always nice to read personal reminiscences about watching original broadcasts. I’ll reserve my own thoughts on the series’ trajectory for the three upcoming posts, but I will tell you now that I agree with your sentiments about the show’s declining quality. Stay tuned…

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