Most of the time, Mark Clamen writes about current television for Critics at Large. After all, there's more than enough programming to talk about in the 21st Century. On this occasion, however, Mark turned his eyes back to an influential Seventies show and provided a sharp commentary on its significance.
Soap was prime time television’s first serial comedy. The brainchild of the production team of Susan Harris, Paul Witt, and Tony Thomas (perhaps most famous for creating the immensely successful Golden Girls in the 80s), Soap was a parody of daytime soap operas which wove together the serialized and often sensationalized narrative of a soap with the conventions of a weekly situation comedy. The result was like nothing television had ever seen before, and quite frankly, since. I have always remembered the show fondly but, having watched it mainly as a kid, few but the most exaggerated details of it remained in my memory. What I recalled were the over-the-top characters, the zany situations, and, well to be honest, the ventriloquist dummy. What has surprised me in the past week has been the brilliant writing, the stunning comedic acting, and the depth and humanity of all of its characters. Some sitcoms don’t age well, while others become more impressive even decades after their original run. The best of them fall into two camps: groundbreaking ones which change the genre forever, thereby setting the stage for the success of many subsequent series, and other shows which are so startlingly original that they have produced no real successors. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971-79) falls firmly in the latter camp: though the show is largely credited for the sudden boom in ethnic sitcoms of the 70s, none ever approached the stark political frankness of the show that inspired them. Even today, almost 40 years later, any episode from the first season of All in the Family can leave a contemporary television viewer speechless in terms of the bluntness and honesty of its political content. I’m now convinced that Soap, despite its disarming lack of pretension and apparently narrow mandate, falls into that same category.
|Robert Guillaume & Katherine Helmond|
With the exception of the great Norman Lear comedies of the 70s, the sitcom is often the epitome of reset TV. And if any show represents the Platonic ideal of the American sitcom, it's Three’s Company. Learning its lessons from the successful comedies of the 60s, the ideal sitcom is a structurally amnesiac genre: every episode designed to stand firmly on its own, and characters rarely even remembering past experiences, far less learning from them. Everything the viewer needs to know about the show can be picked up in the opening credits, and (in the case of Three’s Company) every episode is basically the same comedy of errors, miscalculation, and misunderstanding. Characters are set and stories are self-contained, deliberately designed to tie up all loose-ends every half-hour.
In 2007, Soap rightly earned a spot in Time magazine’s “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.” We are perhaps still reaping the benefits of its too-short run. Soap: The Complete Series is available on DVD.
- originally published on October 27, 2010 in Critics at Large.