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Soap: The Show And Its Controversy

Entertainment | April 6, 2022

The cast of the show. Source: (Soaps.com-SheKnows).

Soap began its run on Tuesday, September 13, 1977, at 9:30 PM. Before it even aired, there were six months of protests. In March of that year, executives at the 195 affiliate stations screened the show and some were horrified by the emphasis on sex and infidelity. Soap nearly didn’t air, as religious groups campaigned against it because of the way that it handled subjects like homosexuality. ABC did not give in to the protests and even dropped their sponsor fees from $75,000 per spot to $40,000 to hold onto their sponsors. Inevitably, the controversy created publicity, and Soap’s premiere won its time slot. During the first season, it ranked at #13. When it premiered at 9:30 P.M. on September 13, it became the first show to carry a “viewer discretion” warning. Rod Roddy announced that the show had adult themes and the warning was also made as a screen display. The warning remained throughout the first season.

Arthur Peterson, Jr. Source: (IMDb).

It Aired To Mixed Reviews And The Controversy Remained

After the premiere of the show, ABC received hundreds of calls and said that there were more calls in favor of it than against it. According to a University of Richmond poll, 74% of viewers thought that it was inoffensive, and half of the offended individuals were planning to watch it again; this was, of course, in spite of the initial controversy. Its initial reviews were mixed. The Los Angeles Times said it was “a prolonged dirty joke” and lacked “cleverness or style or subtlety.” According to Variety, it was “predictable and silly,” but it was “no more outrageous than daytime soapers.” Despite the criticism, it also had positive reviews and high ratings throughout its four-year run. 

Cathryn Damon and Richard Mulligan. Source: (IMDb).

It Mocked The Outrageous Storylines Of Daytime Soaps

The premise of Soap was a parody of soap operas, and in fact, three of the cast members had starred on soap operas: Arthur H. Peterson, Jr. had been on both the radio version of The Guiding Light and General Hospital, Robert Mandan had been on Search for Tomorrow, and Donnelly Rhodes appeared on The Young and the Restless. As a parody, it had a number of outrageous storylines, mocking those of the afternoon melodramas. 

Billy Crystal and Cathryn Damon. Source: (IMDb).

The Basic Plotline

The first installment began with the announcer saying “This is the story of two sisters—Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell.” Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and her husband Chester (Robert Mandan) aren’t exactly faithful; their affairs lead to a number of mishaps. Jessica doesn’t believe the stories of Chester’s dalliances until she witnesses them herself. The Tates’ butler is Benson (Robert Guillaume). He is a sarcastic character who despises Chester but gets along with the other family members. Benson ended up being so popular that his character got his own spin-off, Benson.

The Campbells are working class and their son, Danny Dallas (Ted Wass) is a gangster-in-training. When Danny is told to kill his stepfather, he goes on the run, donning a variety of disguises. Danny’s brother Jodie (Billy Crystal) who is gay and contemplating a sex change operation is having an affair with a professional football quarterback. Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas, one of the first recurring gay characters on an American sitcom. The character is having an affair with a professional football quarterback and is contemplating having a sex change which upset not only the religious groups, but also some gay groups who were worried that the character perpetuated stereotypes, particularly with Jodie Dallas’s desire to have a sex change. Eventually, the character’s plotline was toned down. 

Source: (IMDb)

The Comedy Was Infused In The Beginning And Ending Of Each Episode

As this is a parody of a soap opera, there are other plotlines. In one of those, Father Tim Flotsky (Sal Viscuso) leaves the priesthood to marry Jessica’s adopted daughter Corinne and they have a child who is possessed by the Devil. In another one of them, Mary’s stepson Chuck (Jay Johnson) is a ventriloquist who expresses his hostilities through a dummy named Bob.

The comedy starts with the intro to each episode, and it continues right up until the announcer’s return at the end. They begin with the announcer summarizing the storyline for the week and remarking “Confused? You won’t be after this week’s episode of…Soap.” Each announcer returns at the end of each episode to ask a series of grave questions in a deadpan manner, followed by the line “These questions—and many others—will be answered in the next episode of…Soap.” 

Robert Guillame and Katherine Helmond. Source: (IMDb).

It May Have Ended Too Soon, But It Left A Legacy

They had planned for five seasons and the plot outline covered all five. However, the protests finally affected the sponsors and led ABC to end the show prematurely right at a cliffhanger at the end of season four. Although the official reason for its cancellation was declining ratings, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Soap “ended under suspicion that resistance from ad agencies may have caused ABC to cancel [it] at that point” as the controversial content was having a negative effect on its relationships with sponsors. In the cliffhanger, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) is shot by a firing squad. This cliffhanger was sort of resolved in the spin-off Benson, when Jessica Tate visited Benson as an apparition, informing him that she was not dead but in a coma in South America.

Soap may have faced controversy during its short run, but it was nominated for 17 Emmys including the Outstanding Comedy Series in 1978, 1979, and 1980. It is now considered one of the best in television history. Critics have praised the “exceptionally rich cast.” In 2010, The Huffington Post said, “Rarely does a show come along with such a unique voice and vision from the first episode.”

Tags: Soap Operas

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.