Thoughts on “Soap”

“Soap” is, essentially, a half-hour parody of your typical daytime soap operas. One of the main advantages of this format is that the show can go to ridiculous extremes to generate humour because at worst it won’t be much more extreme than actual soap operas are and at best it being so much more extreme than normal soap operas but yet in line with them will only work to heighten the parody. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a downside to the format, which is that soap operas, even at the time, were themselves reaching for more extremes, and so the show can seem stale or outdated, essentially as a soap opera itself rather than a parody. To overcome this, the show is going to have to be funny in and of itself.

Fortunately it, for the most part, actually is. It contains a number of strong comedic actors — including an early role for Billy Crystal — and has a lot of humourous scenes in it that aren’t directly related to soap opera parody. In general, the writing is pretty strong: but this itself is actually a weakness at times, because the show stitches in dramatic and emotional scenes into the humour, which is how soap operas work as well. Unfortunately, the scenes are so effective that it can make the humour less funny. If Jessica talks about how devastated her relationship with her husband is making her, or Mary talks about all the issues that her rather screwy family are causing her, it ends up being harder to laugh when they do those crazy things or when Jessica and her husband fight. The actions don’t seem as innocent anymore.

Anyway, the show is, as its intro constantly reminds us, about two radically different families, linked by marriage — Jessica and Mary, the two wives, are sisters — that also live radically different lives. Jessica’s family, the Tates, are rich and successful, while Mary’s, the Campbell’s, are more working class. They in general don’t get along when they get together, which adds to the humour as they fight with each other.

The breakout character was, of course, the first butler, Benson, but in general I found the second butler, Saunders, more interesting. Benson’s humour was more hostile, while Saunders’ was more dignified and frustrated, at least in part because of the British accent.

Harris had planned for five seasons, but only got four, ending the fourth on a cliffhanger. That being said, while it was still good, the later seasons weren’t as interesting. For me, while I had originally liked the daughter Eunice, she was kinda derailed in the later seasons and then the other Tate daughter, Corrine, left after losing the ex-con Dutch — played by Donnelly Rhodes — to Eunice (who, to be fair, had found him first) even though Eunice had really treated him poorly in that season. This is sad because one of the show’s strengths was the characters and how you could interpret them. Eunice, for example, is very angry at Billy Crystal’s Jodie character early on, using some gay slurs that you wouldn’t think she’d do, but it’s later revealed that he kept taking some of her favourite clothes which is why she hated him, and later events reveal that this isn’t uncommon (Corrine at one point dressed the dog up in Eunice’s clothes). It’s easy to see how losing the things she loved most could make her a bit bitter. In the later seasons, there is an undercurrent that she’s unsatisfied with her relationships because she takes after her father, but it isn’t played up enough to really come off.

That’s the flaw in the later seasons: the characterization isn’t as strong or consistent, which then somewhat hurts the humour but more hurts the show. It becomes more something to watch as a comedy just for the rather standard jokes than as the at least slightly deeper show that it started out as. This sort of character derailment is indeed common in soap operas, as characters change to fit the convoluted storylines they find themselves in, but it did hurt the show a bit.

That being said, even with that, it was still a good show. I will definitely watch this show again at some point.

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