The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season Three

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 DONNELLY RHODES as Dutch Leitner.

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Although the third season contains some of the funniest half hours from the entire series (and a string of fantastic episodes that aired in the fall of ’79), the second half of the year finds the series entering a slump from which it did not have the time to extricate itself. One of the reasons why Soap loses its way in the middle of the year is that it stops wanting to be satirical. (We’ve discussed this quite a bit over the past few weeks, and although Harris never intended the show to be a satire, it’s difficult to deny the mockery that was inherent in the initial seasons. So while it may not ever have been a true satire, the metaphorical tongue-in-cheek tone was present and aided the comedy.) Now, instead of lampooning soapy storylines, the series begins taking and dealing with them in earnest. In other words, the show gives us life-threatening illnesses and custody battles, just like we’d find on a daytime series, but decides not to be conventionally comedic, using them merely as opportunities to further character development. That would be all well and good — if the stories employed didn’t feel contrived and worthy of parody themselves!

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Furthermore, the show has difficulty reconciling its adopted zaniness (the pinnacle of which has Burt beamed up onto a spacecraft and replaced on earth with Alien Burt — a hysterical storyline that Harris interestingly regrets) with the emotional integrity it wants to engender for its unique characters. And, of course, there are some storytelling misfires — none more detrimental than the departure of Benson after the third episode for his own self-titled spin-off. Thus, it’s a very transitional year for the show. Early on, things are functioning on high gear (and that can’t be emphasized enough — these may be among the series’ best, truly), but when the steam runs out around Episode 59… it’s rough going. 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes this season are directed by J.D. Lobue, except for the first six. Those will be noted below. Remember 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, and it has never been released on home video.

 

01) Episode 48 (Aired: 09/13/79)

Jessica chooses between Chester and Donohue; Burt is trapped aboard a space ship.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver | Directed by Jay Sandrich

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Surprisingly, the third season premiere manages to be among the funniest, as the show seamlessly continues the stories that were teased at the end of Season Two. The most notable runner, which will continue for almost half the year, involves Alien Burt coming to Earth and replacing real Burt. (Its bizarreness eclipses even Corinne’s devil baby.) Meanwhile, Jessica chooses Chester over Donohue in a highly amusing scene in which she writes her selection on slips of paper and then accidentally mixes up the two outcomes. But, hands down, the funniest bit has the men of the Tate house donning blackface to rescue Billy from the Sunnies. Ah, the jokes that follow — unbeatable comedy (and un-PC by today’s standards). MVE candidate.

02) Episode 49 (Aired: 09/20/79)

The men try to rescue Billy from the Sunnies; Mary is kept busy by Alien Burt.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver | Directed by Jay Sandrich

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I have heard from several fans who believe that starting in Season Three, Soap eventually lived up to the reputation of gratuitous lasciviousness that the press has established for the series before its debut. While I can see the series resorting to dirtier jokes and stories, like this entire thread about Alien Burt being a sexual sycophant, it’s difficult to complain when the results are as hysterical as they are here. (Although, admittedly, the introduction of this storyline is probably its comedic high point as far as Mulligan is concerned.) Meanwhile, Jack Gilford makes his debut as a 4000 year old Earth man with whom Burt bonds while on the spaceship, and the “Step Brothers” make an unforgettable performance — another MVE contender.

03) Episode 53 (Aired: 11/01/79)

Burt tries to meet with Mary; Eunice and Corinne catch their father cheating again.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver | Directed by Jay Sandrich

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That aforementioned string of fantastic installments begins meekly with this one, in which Burt begins trying desperately to meet Mary so that he can tell her the truth about the alien that has usurped his position. The comedic centerpiece of the episode, however, is a well built sequence in which several characters are caught misbehaving at a restaurant. First Eunice and Corinne gossip about the former’s growing disinterest in Dutch, only to see their father once again stepping out on their mother. Later, Billy and his teacher/girlfriend Leslie spy Eunice out with another man, and are spotted themselves by Chester and his mistress. It’s not the greatest of this post’s offerings, but there are such lampoonable machinations!

04) Episode 54 (Aired: 11/08/79)

The Tates throw a party for Dutch; Burt continues trying to get Mary away from Alien Burt.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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While the opening scene of this installment features an excuse to get the entire family together (a welcoming party for the recently released Dutch) where their individual idiosyncrasies can be played off one another for great comedic value, this episode primarily makes today’s list for the inclusion of one of the series’ most iconic scenes. Burt is finally able to get ahold of Mary, and just as he meets her in the drugstore, he is re-beamed back up into the spaceship, leaving her to question what in the heck just happened. (Has he finally mastered the ability to make himself invisible upon command? Very funny territory, and you can bet Damon milks it masterfully.) Otherwise, this is also not the strongest in this string of third season hits.

05) Episode 55 (Aired: 11/22/79)

Dutch suspects Eunice of cheating; Burt convinces Alien Burt to leave.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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When watching an episode like this, it’s not difficult to see why both Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon won Emmy Awards for their performances this season, as they clearly are the MVPs of the series at this point. In this outing, Damon’s Mary gets a brilliantly funny scene in the Tate dining room in which she tries to verbalize the disappearance of Burt that she just witnessed at the drugstore. Meanwhile, Campbell’s Burt finally puts an end to the alien arc when he convinces his identical counterpart to trade him back his life and go back to the ship. It’s a powerful scene, written with great care and brimming with humanity. And although the laughs are secondary to the story, the results are very satisfying.

06) Episode 56 (Aired: 12/06/79)

Danny meets a widow; Mary tries to explain to Jessica about Alien Burt.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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Another comedically potent installment, this one has a lot of different stories weaving through it, utilizing each member of the ensemble. While Danny has a nice conversation with a black woman in the cemetery (talking to her late husband’s headstone), Jessica learns of Billy’s affair with his teacher. But those are the least amusing scenes. The others, in which both Burt and Mary try to come to terms with the alien activities to which they have just been party, Jessica is in for another rude awakening when she spies Chester checking into a hotel room with another woman. However, the funniest scene has Dutch letting Eunice know that he’s found out about her affair — by dumping a pot of oatmeal on her head (and Chester’s too)!

07) Episode 57 (Aired: 12/13/79)

Jessica catches Chester cheating; Burt and Mary get check-ups.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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Every scene is a winner in this, undoubtedly the funniest and most consistent episode of the entire third season. Special mention must be made of several moments, including the scene in which Jessica follows Chester up to his hotel room, where he has his mistress disguise herself as a table (it’s rip-roaringly funny). Vying with that scene for top honors is a scene between Jodie, Burt, and Danny in the Campbell kitchen in which the latter tells the others of his infatuation with the woman he’s met in the cemetery. With a lot of great bits – including Burt’s burial idea — it’s the best written scene of the season. And if that weren’t enough, Jessica delights in a fun scene where she meets Leslie, and Burt and Mary raise comedic hijinks in the bemused doctor’s office.

08) Episode 58 (Aired: 12/27/79)

Billy celebrates his 18th birthday; Chester wants Jessica back.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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Although this is a comedic episode in its own right, it essentially just piggybacks off of a lot of the hilarity that has transpired in the preceding installments and builds to what’s coming up in the next. While Burt’s continued anxiety about living up the virility of his alien doppelgänger always delivers laughs, the best scene is the opener, in which Chester comes crawling back to Jessica (via her bedroom window) in search of forgiveness. She gets the opportunity to give him a few good jabs about his deceitful and promiscuous ways, and it’s undoubtedly a hoot, before ultimately agreeing to let him reside in the guest bedroom. Meanwhile, Billy turns 18, which means he and Leslie can legally take their relationship to the next level . . .

09) Episode 59 (Aired: 01/03/80)

Jessica and Chester consult a minister for counseling; Burt gets good news and bad news.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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As the first episode to air in the ’80s, this is where Soap transitions itself from major comedic contender to flawed memento of a former television classic. The outing starts out superiorly with a fun scene in which the family revels in Jodie’s return home with Wendy, as they decide a way of celebration: going to Coney Island — without Jodie and Wendy. Another peak of hilarity is reached in the following scene, in which Chester and Jessica visit a minister about their marital problems. It’s loaded with the wonderfully wacky (and guffaw-inducing) dialogue for which Soap is iconic. But during the final moments, in which Burt learns Mary is pregnant, and then is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the series comes to a crashing halt.

10) Episode 69 (I) (Aired: 03/27/80)

Jodie’s custody hearing for Wendy continues; Eunice and Corinne fight over Dutch.

Written by Susan Harris & Stu Silver

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After a seemingly ceaseless tear of mediocre and aimless episodes (the best of which are listed in the honorable mentions below), the series once again gives us some worthy comedy. Like the second season premiere, this episode originally aired in a one-hour block on ABC, and although included as such on the DVD, it is split up in syndication. Interestingly, the second half is dangerously unfunny as it’s mostly designed to build up towards their inevitable cliffhanger, in which Jessica dies. But this first part boasts some memorable scenes, including one hilarious moment in which both Eunice and Corinne make their claims on Dutch, forcing him to choose between the two. (His “eeenie meenie minie moe” bit is hysterically divine.)

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: Episode 50 (Aired: 09/27/79), the last installment with Benson as a regular, Episode 62 (Aired: 01/24/80), which features a great scene between Jessica, Mary, and Polly’s mother, Episode 64 (Aired: 02/07/80), in which the minister’s daughter dumps Chester for someone “better” and Jessica walks in on Dutch and Corinne in bed together (the best of these 1980 offerings), and Episode 66 (Aired: 03/06/80), in which Leslie doesn’t take Billy’s brush off very well and Jessica hires Saunders as Benson’s replacement.

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

Episode 57

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

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10 thoughts on “The Ten Best SOAP Episodes of Season Three

  1. You’re right. This is a season that starts out very strong, and then goes straight off the rails. Unfortunately, the series never really rights itself. It’s an occasional flaw in Harris’s work that her shows sometimes take themselves too seriously, forgetting that they’re comedies and getting too caught up in dramatic moments. Not that there’s anything in the world wrong with sitcoms having dramatic moments, as long as those dramatic moments work. Unfortunately, when they don’t work, they can bring a funny episode grinding to a halt. Harris’s later THE GOLDEN GIRLS was similarly sometimes tripped up that way.

    • Hi, Steven! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You’re right — THE GOLDEN GIRLS occasionally ran into the same problem. Fortunately, the storytelling wasn’t serialized, so a lofty idea was done and dealt with in 25 minutes (maximum). With SOAP, there’s the risk of a multi-episode arc — and we got a few that forsook too many laughs and thus seemed interminable. But stay tuned for coverage on THE GOLDEN GIRLS in mid 2016, and the final season of SOAP next week!

  2. I remember this being the last season when I watched Soap with any regularity, maybe more for the delay from the 1980 Actors’ Strike cooling momentum for this show, though you noted it had gone off the track before then.
    I remember the eps from 12/06/79 & 03/06/80 from their original airdates, mainly for their messy situations, as you showed above with the oatmeal (probably the only time Chester ever called Eunice “Princess”, just before getting the pot over his head), and then in the later show Leslie dumped a bottle of wine over her own head because she was dumped by Billy. I also remember another of her “suicide” attempts (“Leslie, that’s a spoon!”). Marla Pennington (Leslie) played the mom on Small Wonder a few years after this.
    You may agree with me that this show had too many situations for its comedy, as I remember the Season 3 finale leaving 6 cliffhangers, even more than Season 2’s 4. I can’t remember (and may not have cared) how these cliffhangers resolved themselves the next year.
    Robert Guillaume was smart to leave Soap for Benson, as Benson went on 5 seasons after Soap was done. Also I could tell that by waiting 6 months to get a new butler, Soap was leaving an opening for Guillaume to return. What did you think of Benson? It seemed to me like a conventional sitcom, and it had no serial aspect to it. Like Soap, though, it ended in a series-ending cliffhanger.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, I am generally a proponent of single-premise offerings, for I’d rather a script’s comedy come from breathable character moments than rushed plot points. While there are positives and negatives associated with the multi-story design, the ideas have to be connected — either narratively or thematically — to feel compatible and make the format work. However, SOAP’s structure is drawn from the daytime serials, which almost never dedicated a whole installment to one singular story. So the incorporation of multiple plots is inherent in this show’s design, and thus, I am never bothered by its usage here.

      As for BENSON, I must echo my response to Track’s inquiry from last week: “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 . . . The show will not be covered here anytime soon. (Although I’ll never say never!)”

  3. The scene where the “Step Brothers” rescue Billy from the Sunnies’ compound is the funniest in the four-year run of a series that was loaded with sidesplitting scenes. This episode aired on ABC on Sept. 20. Five nights later on the same network, TAXI aired the “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” episode with the famous scene of Iggy taking the driver’s test at the DMV. In one week, ABC could stake claim to airing the two funniest sitcom scenes of the entire decade.

    Another note: On the series BENSON. It’s almost impossible to believe that a series as bland and conventionally vanilla as BENSON (even though it lasted much, much longer than SOAP) came from the same production team as SOAP. And Robert Guillaume was a far better Benson on SOAP, where his acerbic cynicism dovetailed perfectly with the show’s tone, than he was on BENSON, where he was rewritten as a benign surrogate father of sorts.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I love the Step Brothers dance sequence, but I don’t think I could aggrandize it as one of the entire decade’s funniest. Personally, I like the scene from the previous episode where we first see them in blackface just as much. The comedy in both is fueled by the shock value, but the surprise is stronger (naturally) in their debut. However, comedy is subjective; a great moment is a great moment!

      Regarding BENSON, the character’s transformation, which I agree is no boon to his comedy, seems to correspond with the shift in tone between sitcoms of the ’70s and sitcoms of the ’80s. In the latter, we see a lot more domestic setups, happy endings, and “family friendly” fare. And it’s so hard to do a show like that comedically. This series was ensemble-driven (more like a ’70s show than an ’80s), but as you noted, it’s SOAP’s opposite in many unfortunate ways, the primary being that the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low. It’s safer, saner, and middling. Again, however, I’ve only seen the first two years. Maybe it gets great in Season Three . . .

  4. This is one funny show. Speaking of soaps, have you ever thought of reviewing Dark Shadows (1966 version) on Wildcard Wednesdays? I have been watching the dvd’s and am really enjoying it….mistakes and all. It is truly a classic.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Thanks for the great suggestion. Following my coverage of PEYTON PLACE, I have thought about doing something with the original DARK SHADOWS. At this time, the high cost and ridiculous time commitment are deterrents, especially since the amount of effort involved would likely not be evident in the final product. In other words, I would most likely watch 100 episodes to highlight only ten for one post. For that to be worthwhile, I’d have to love the series. PEYTON PLACE was a pleasure; I am not sure that DARK SHADOWS would be the same. But I am definitely considering it, so stay tuned . . .

  5. Thanks. It becomes really addictive especially when they go back in time. My daughter got a kick out of that. My wife does not like it as much. My daughter has gotten me to watch Vampire Diaries and the similarities to Dark Shadows is amazing. Even the characters names are similar. She said she thought that she read where they used Dark Shadows as the basis for the series. I will keep my fingers crossed that Dark Shadows is covered one day. Keep up the great work. Really enjoyable to read.

  6. Pingback: Regrets . . . I’ve Had A Few | THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!

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