The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season Two

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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 as The Major, JIMMY BAIO as Billy Tate, JAY JOHNSON as Chuck (and Bob) Tate, and ROBERT GUIILLAUME as Benson.

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Soap‘s second season is the series’ most consistent, and as a result, stands as what we could probably term the show’s “golden age.” With all of the characters well established and explored in the first season, Harris and new writing partner Stu Silver are able to do almost anything they want. Indeed, the show becomes even more daring — with gut-wrenching tragedy (like Elaine’s murder, which would feel out of place on almost any other sitcom), groundbreaking storytelling (including frank discusses about sex — it’s almost shocking how much they were able to get away with in ’78), and zany comedy (which intensifies at the end of the year when devil babies and alien spaceships rule the scripts). In Season Two, the show incorporates more daytime tropes, as Chester’s amnesia and Corinne’s demon baby provide some of the more memorable story lines of the year, particularly because of the show’s regular employment of its tongue-in-cheek tone. Although we have been advised by Harris to not merely see Soap as a primetime satire of daytime TV, this season sure seems like one wicked parody of television dramas (and comedies) and how the medium crafts stories. Because of the high quality of this season, this list was the toughest to make. Nevertheless, I have picked ten episodes 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by Jay Sandrich, unless otherwise noted. Note that each episode is listed by the number it is given on the DVD set, and hour-long installments are considered two separate entries. (This is not only because they would be split into two during syndication, but also because I do not think it fair to compare episodes of varying lengths.) The clip show special that opened the season is not considered an installment, although this particular one has been released on VHS.

 

01) Episode 26 (I) (Aired: 09/14/78)

Chester tries to commit suicide; Corinne meets Tim’s mother.

Written by Susan Harris

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While Jodie’s attempted suicide in the previous season was treated with seriousness, Chester’s decision to hang himself in the kitchen following Jessica’s guilty verdict is rendered a slapstick tour de force, kicking off a season where comedy and drama are paired together in the most masterful of ways. (The balance would slip next season.) This is the first half of what originally was produced and aired, and labeled on the DVD, as a single one-hour episode, but the scenes from this part are collectively funnier than what followed. Tim’s mother, played by Doris Roberts, trying to strangle Corinne is probably the highlight. But I recommend watching the second half, in which Chester confesses and we meet Dutch, as well!

02) Episode 28 (Aired: 09/28/78)

The Campbells have trouble tolerating Elaine; Eunice sleeps with Dutch.

Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Susan Harris & Jordan Crittenden

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This is maybe the first of several ’78 and ’79 episodes in which every scene is a winner, with big laughs and fabulous character moments. While the episode is notable for the first pairing of Dutch and Eunice (who have what might be considered today an insensitive conversation about rape), there are some unparalleled moments of comedy. The dinner scene with Burt, Mary, Danny and Elaine, in which the latter’s nastiness finally earns her a pie in the face (courtesy of a fed up Mary) is a classic, and the conversation that Mary and Jessica share in the Tate kitchen, where they compare family scandals (Dutch and Chester in the basement vs. Jodie becoming a father) is among the show’s finest — ever.

03) Episode 31 (Aired: 10/19/78)

Burt and Mary try to get Danny and Elaine to be nice to each other; Dutch visits Eunice.

Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Susan Harris & Jordan Crittenden

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In addition to another funny scene between Dutch and Eunice, who share a midnight visit while the former is on the run, this installment makes the list because of the goings on in the Campbell household, where we continue with Danny trying to change Elaine, (who, it should be noted, is played by Dinah Manoff, daughter of Lee Grant, the star of Witt, Thomas, and Harris’ Fay) by treating her with a hyper-masculine form of cruelty. As Burt bluntly talks to Elaine about being nicer to Danny and trusting his family, Mary encourages Danny to cut the routine and just treat his wife with kindness. It’s not only a funny scene, but it starts one of the show’s most earnest arcs. Plus Chester wakes up and thinks he’s Gunga Din!

04) Episode 32 (Aired: 11/02/78)

Elaine opens up to Danny; Jodie meets Carol’s father.

Written by Susan Harris

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A legendary installment, this one — perhaps more than any other this season — epitomizes the series’ incorporation of both the light and the dark. While this episode is well remembered for a shockingly truthful scene between Danny and Elaine in which she breaks down in front of him and reveals why she’s so hard (and it’s not played for laughs), it also features what will become a Susan Harris staple (particularly on her big hit of the following decade, The Golden Girls, which we’ll be covering here sometime in 2016): women talking sex and eating cake. With that unmistakable Harris writing, the Tate and Campbell women’s conversation is a new height for the series — one that it will spend its next few years trying to reach.

05) Episode 34 (Aired: 11/23/78)

Burt wakes up with Sally; Chester thinks he’s Marlene Dietrich.

Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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Chester thinking he’s Marlene Dietrich is probably the funniest thing that the show ever handed to Robert Mandan. It isn’t often that he gets to be as zany as the other characters, but this episode proves that he can certainly deliver. It’s another crowning achievement in this season of hilarity. But this episode is, like so many this year, filled with delectable bits — among them, Burt’s convoluted “airplane on the highway” lie to cover up for the fact that he spent the entire evening doing who-knows-what at Sally’s, the scene between Mary and Elaine in their garish face masks (including a great joke about cow placentas and heifers), and Jessica’s attempt to give a worthy toast at the bridal shower that she’s thrown for Carol.

06) Episode 36 (Aired: 12/07/78)

Jessica hires Detective Donohue; Corinne gets some surprising news about her pregnancy.

Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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Yet again, we have another installment in which each scene is just as funny, if not funnier, than the one that preceded it. We begin with some great slapstick among the Campbell clan when Elaine goes missing, move to the introduction of John Byner as Detective Donohue, whom Jessica has hired to find Chester, then find Corinne at the gynecologist, who reveals that she’s actually five months along (Helmond’s Jessica is laugh-so-hard-you-cry funny here), pick up with Jodie as Dennis, Carol, and a wacky commercial involving men dressed as fruit compete for his attention, and conclude with more physical comedy as Burt and Danny talk to Elaine’s kidnappers. It’s an action and hilarity packed installment. MVE runner up.

07) Episode 40 (Aired: 01/11/79)

The family has a memorial for Chester; Jodie goes to Carol’s home in Texas.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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With everyone believing that Chester had died, this installment begins with a memorial service in which the family tries hard to memorialize the late amnesic philanderer, but of course, it isn’t easy. Little do they know that he’s wandering around (alive, obviously) and believing himself to be Lester Pate… The comedic (and dramatic) center point of the episode, however, has Jodie tracking down Carol at her home in Texas, where she tells him that she doesn’t want him to be the father of her baby. But this is after he gets a chance to meet her daffy pure Texan mother, Lurleen David, played by Peggy Pope, who makes the first of several hilarious and memorable guest appearances.

08) Episode 44 (Aired: 02/15/79)

Jessica tells Chester about her affair with Donohue; Sally confesses to Mary.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver | Directed by John Bowab

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The A.V. club wrote an article specifically about this episode, and frankly, it seems a bit of an odd choice to single out. It’s a strong episode, no doubt, but certainly not the funniest of the season. Nevertheless, we have a lot of memorable moments, chief of which (and why it was worthy of the author’s time) is that it hints at the demonic devil baby storyline that will monopolize the rest of the season. And indeed it’s a wickedly frightening bit. First, however, we get some worthy comedy, as Jessica tells the returned Chester that she has been unfaithful — with the detective she hired to find him, and Billy gets his first real storyline as an old crush of his invites him to join her cult, the Sunnies.

09) Episode 46 (Aired: 03/08/79)

Corinne’s baby is harassing the Tate household; Jodie and Alice make a decision.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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A lot of this feels like set-up for the season finale, and while I wrote last week about my strained relationship with season ending episodes as they have to do a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of story and meeting their predisposed cliffhangers, these two episodes probably represent Soap at its pinnacle, and the most event-like that it would ever be. (That’s not to say that these are the greatest episodes, because I think there are definitely funnier ones.) But much of this offering finds the family coming to terms with and facing up to Corinne and Tim’s possessed baby. The absurdity yields a lot of comedy. Meanwhile, Alice gets her best scene on the series as she and Jodie decide to try a relationship.

10) Episode 47 (Aired: 03/15/79)

Danny confronts Elaine’s murderer; the Tates confront Corinne’s baby.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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As mentioned above, this is a Soap EVENT as the Tates and Campbells prepare to exorcise the devil out of Corinne’s baby. Unfortunately, while this is a strong season finale, that moment is an anti-climax, as the demon is driven out by a sappy half-hearted speech that Jessica gives about family. It’s a letdown from all that has transpired, hurting the whole storyline. Other than that, this is a very funny outing. The scene in which Corrine voices her belief that this possessed baby is a consequence of her promiscuous past is filled with great lines. (She slept with the mayor and his opponent. The better man won.) And in addition to the memorable cliffhanger of Burt being abducted, Jessica has a choice to make…

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: Episode 39 (Aired: 01/04/79), which features one of the funniest scenes of the season as Jessica, Billy, and Benson pretend to be a family to throw a police officer off the scent of Eunice and Dutch (but this is the offering’s only standout moment), Episode 41 (Aired: 01/18/79), which introduces Alice (not an abundantly humorous character) and features a fun scene of the Campbell/Dallas men getting drunk, and Episode 43 (Aired: 02/08/79), in which Chester returns just after Jessica and Donohue have spent their first night together (and the best of these three here).  

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

Episode 32

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

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15 thoughts on “The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season Two

  1. One small correction: Lurleen David was played by Peggy Pope, not vice versa. Peggy Pope has had a memorable career, going back to Bewitched at least and continuing through 9 to 5, both the movie & sitcom.
    I made a special point to see Episode 28, as ABC had a Soap promo clip of one of my favorite comedy bits, the pie in the face, and Elaine certainly deserved it! I think it was the first time I saw Dinah Manoff, whom I’d seen that summer as Marty in the movie version of Grease, on Soap. I didn’t see much of the first season, perhaps because my local ABC affiliate took ABC’s option of showing it at 9:30 PM CT, after Family.
    I notice you didn’t pick the episode where Elaine was murdered, as I remember seeing it on its original air date of 12/21/1978. It was too bad seeing her killed as she was finally turning decent. Did you think it was too sad/dramatic? I also remember this season ending with 4 cliff-hangers, which increased to 6 at the end of the following season. Probably too many balls (plots) to “juggle”.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Good catch; I have amended the post. While I think Elaine’s death was not out-of-character for the series, it’s not the type of beat I appreciate in a situation COMEDY — no matter how it’s done. A case could be made for the quality of Episode 38 if the other stories measured up, but they don’t, so it’s one of a few offerings this season for which I don’t particularly care.

      However, the Elaine arc does speak to the debate about whether or not to view SOAP as a satire or something more legitimate. This plot makes a case for the latter, and supports Harris’ aim (not surprisingly) that they’re using daytime’s serialization without mocking the genre. In other words, they don’t do soapy story lines just for laughs; they also do soapy story lines for drama. But Harris wants her cake and she wants to eat it too. SOAP is still a situation comedy, and although comedy-dramas have always been represented on TV in one way or another, I am NOT of the opinion that an inclusion of drama helps elevate comedy, for more often than not, the comedy is used in support of the drama — not the other way around. Additionally, the balance between the two is very tricky (as we see in all of Lear’s shows), and it becomes much harder for this show to manage the dichotomy successfully starting in January 1980. But more on that next week . . .

  2. Ah yes, Billy running away to join the Sunnies. (SPOILER ALERT): The plan to rescue Billy from the Sunnies early in Season 3 results in a scene with the Major, Det. Donohue, Chester and Benson that is not only the funniest scene of the series, but one of the most uproarious scenes I can ever remember in a sitcom. I am confident you will treat it with the reverence it deserves in your Season 3 recap.

  3. I love the baby possession story. It was so crazy but entertaining. I agree that the ending of it was lame but other than that it was great.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Be sure to check back next week for my thoughts on the best from the third season, which contains the demon baby’s primary rival for “Wackiest Storyline” . . . Alien Burt!

  4. This was the season where they used every character right. My fav moment in the season is when Benson threw Bob out the window, The women of the shows cheesecake scene, Mary throwing things at Burt and even the heavier moments like Elaines murder and Carolstanding Jodie up. Mostly due to the acting. Personally I liked the Benson spinoff but as a kid I never saw Soap ( I started watching Soap a few years back where I caught Benson on TV Land) What are your thoughts on the spinoff and do you really think its the eighties best kept secret, also why did you really think the season finale was anti climatic.
    Great review

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I have only seen the first two seasons of BENSON, so I cannot comment on the show’s evolution. I wasn’t bowled over by what I saw, but I’ve been told by several friends that the quality only improves in later years. Were I to watch the whole series, I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached the same conclusion. However the show will not be covered here anytime soon. (Although I’ll never say never!)

      As for the season finale, I only find the conclusion of the possessed baby storyline to be anti-climactic. The devil leaves just because of some sappy speech about family from Jessica, who does no more than wag a finger with half-hearted intensity? Not believable. The ridiculousness of the plot needed a stronger finish, not to mention one that actually made sense. Other than that, it’s a strong installment.

      Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Three!

  5. I was disappointed Katherine Helmond did not win the Best Actress Emmy for this season of SOAP. She had wonderful material, funny and poignant, all season and played it flawlessly. That her stellar work this year lost out to Ruth Gordon’s (fine) guest performance on TAXI was a shame. And somehow this is the only season of SOAP NOT nominated for the Best Comedy Emmy. Silly Academy!

      • I agree with you both. Helmond was totally gypped out of an Emmy for this season. Too bad the guest actress category wasn’t in force in 1979–not only did Gordon (who also deserved an Emmy) win over Helmond but Sada Thompson’s fine season-long work in FAMILY lost to a one-shot appearance in the lead drama actress category to Mariette Hartley (THE INCREDIBLE HULK). Emmy has screwed over more people….

  6. Oh, a P.S. Yes, yes, yes–episode 32 is this season’s best! The scene where the four ladies eat the apple ring and talk about sex is priceless. I remember crying from laughter when I first saw this, on its initial broadcast. Even Mary’s non-laugh line, “I like [sex] in the morning” is said with an inflection that makes it SO funny. (Thank heaven Emmy recognized the wonderful Damon next season!)

    • Most of the world has forgotten her now, sadly, but Cathryn Damon was one of the most wonderful comic actresses in any sitcom, ever. She was very funny without being “zany,” and she laced her character with enough believable vulnerability to keep the show grounded when it otherwise seemed headed off the rails at time. She was the most believable and relatable character in the series.

      • Damon was always one of the show’s underrated gems. I’m glad she was recognized by the Academy for her efforts during the third season, in particular, when the show really focused on giving her comedically dynamic material.

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