Gone Too Soon: 'Soap'
by Jason Hughes, posted Apr 13th 2010 4:00PM
Normally, you'd think it odd to spotlight a series that lasted four seasons in a column like 'Gone Too Soon.' But 'Soap' was a different kind of series. Like the soap operas it was mocking, it was a premise that could have gone on for years and years. In fact, there's no reason to imagine that it couldn't still be on today.
From 1977 to 1981, Susan Harris crafted what would become a timeless comedy classic for ABC. But despite high ratings throughout its run, 'Soap' would only see four seasons, abruptly ending on a slew of cliffhangers that have frustrated fans for decades.
Despite that, the stellar cast and writing have stood the test of time in a way very few television series can, even if the wardrobes haven't. 'Soap' is as relevant and hilarious today as it was more than thirty years ago now. It deserved a longer life, and both the series and its fans deserved a true ending to Harris' brilliant vision.
What was it?
[Spoiler Warning!] "This is the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell." That simple phrase opened up a world beyond imagination, all seen through a comic parody of traditional soap operas. Through these two families and four seasons, viewers were able to witness everything from alien abductions to demon possession. There was sex and scandals, cults and controversy.
All the classic soap opera staples were there, including amnesia, escaped criminals, star-crossed lovers, infidelity, love, family and loss. But Harris didn't stop there, bringing viewers alien abductions and demonic possession, among other outlandish things with such sincerity that we bought into it completely. It was nothing short of comedic brilliance, featuring one of the most talented and massive casts ever assembled for a weekly television series.
'Soap' managed to spawn a spin-off, as well, when popular character Benson left to headline his own show after the second season. 'Benson' managed seven seasons, but despite its lasting success, it too ended on unresolved cliffhangers. Throughout, there were occasional appearances by characters and/or actors from 'Soap,' including a final appearance by Katherine Helmond as Jessica Tate.
Why did it have to go?
Despite high ratings throughout its run, ABC abruptly canceled 'Soap' after four seasons. During its run, the series received tremendous criticism from various social organizations, upset over its handling of issues such as religion, sex, homosexuality, race, cults and really everything the plots dealt with. Most of the controversy happened before the series even premiered, and things actually mellowed out quite a bit by the time the fourth season was underway, but it was too late.
While the network remained supportive, and the moral outrage had quieted, there was still a major problem with the sponsors. They were nervous to be associated with such a controversial product. So many of them refused to advertise on 'Soap,' there was no way ABC could continue to air the series. Creator Susan Harris had been working within a five-year arc for the major storylines of the series, and had chosen to end the season on three dramatic cliffhangers, as is common in the soap opera world.
How do I find out what happens next?
For awhile, Harris considered some sort of reunion special to wrap up the storylines, but the cast was too massive to accomplish it, and most had moved on. Now, many of the principals have passed away. Harris has never revealed what her intentions were for the various unresolved plotlines, only saying that she knew Jessica would live.
She also hinted that she felt Benson should have been the one to ultimately come in and sweep Jessica off her feet, declaring them "soul mates." We got our last glimpse of Jessica Tate on a later episode of 'Benson,' where it was revealed she was in a coma somewhere in South America. Meanwhile, the Tates were trying to have her declared legally dead.
Where did the cast wind up?
- Katherine Helmond (Jessica) is most famous for her long run as Mona on 'Who's the Boss?'
- Robert Mandan (Chester) had prominent roles in 'Private Benjamin,' as well as 'Three's Company' and 'Three's a Crowd.'
- Jimmy Baio (Billy) went on to several roles in film and television before retiring from acting in 1996.
- Diana Canova (Corinne) played Sandy Beatty in 'Throb,' but is mostly known now for her voicework.
- Jennifer Salt (Eunice) has shifted her career away from acting and more toward script-writing.
- Arthur Peterson (The Major) spent ten years touring the country with his show 'ROBERT FROST: Fire and Ice,' a one-man play he co-wrote. He passed away in 1996 at 83 years old.
- Robert Guillaume (Benson) took Benson to his own show for seven seasons, headlined 'The Robert Guillaume Show,' and was one of the stars of the critically acclaimed 'Sports Night.'
- Sal Viscuso (Father Tim) guest-starred in everything through the '80s and '90s before landing a prominent role on 'Port Charles.'
- Donnelly Rhodes (Dutch) starred in 'Danger Bay' as Dr. Roberts, 'Da Vinci's Inquest' as Det. Shannon, and was featured heavily in the revamped 'Battlestar Galactica' as Dr. Cottle.
- Cathryn Damon (Mary) starred as Cassie Parker on 'Webster' before succumbing to cancer in 1987.
- Richard Mulligan (Burt) achieved the most fame and accolades for his performance as Dr. Weston on 'Empty Nest.'
- Jay Johnson (Chuck and Bob) appears occasionally on television, but his main focus is his ventriloquism and stage work.
- Ted Wass (Danny) played Nick Russo on 'Blossom,' before moving into directing.
- Billy Crystal (Jodie) transitioned into movies, becoming a huge star, as well as a popular recurring Oscars host.
- Robert Urich (Peter) will always be remembered as 'Spencer: For Hire.'
- Dinah Manoff (Elaine) joined Richard Mulligan on 'Empty Nest' as his daughter Carol.
The supporting cast included such names as Rod Roddy (as the announcer), John Byner (Det. Donahue), Inga Swenson (Ingrid), Gordon Jump (Chief Tinkler), Caroline McWilliams (Sally), Lynne Moody (Polly), Marla Pennington (Leslie), Gregory Sierra (El Puerco), Howard Hesseman (Mr. Franklin), Joe Mantegna (Juan), Rebecca Balding (Carol), Nancy Dolman (Annie), Peggy Pope (Mrs. David), Jack Gilford (Saul), Doris Roberts (Flo) and too many more to keep listing!
Anyone who remembers the show, remembers it fondly. Almost everyone who hasn't seen it and gets the opportunity to do so, falls in love with it. Rarely does a show come along with such a unique voice and vision from the first episode, but Susan Harris, who wrote every episode, absolutely nailed her vision.
When can I see it?
It has aired on various local channels, TV Land and Comedy Central, but isn't on the schedule at any of them. While it's inevitable that 'Soap' will once again grace our screens, it might just be easier to pick up the DVD sets. There are sets for each season, as well as 'Soap: The Complete Series' for less than $40 at Amazon. That way you can burn through eight or nine episodes at a time. Yes, it is that hard to stop watching.
[via TV Series Finale, AOL, Wikipedia, IMDb and more!]