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It is widely believed that American television comedy went through a renaissance in the 1970’s. With shows like M*A*S*H and All in the Family, suddenly sitcoms could be more than just wholesome families involved in humorous situations. Many subjects which had been taboo were suddenly splashed across television screens on a weekly basis. Often lost in the talk about the renaissance is what part the comedy SOAP played. It had the first openly gay character, Jodie Dallas, expertly played by Billy Crystal. There was not just suggestion of his homosexuality, it was directly referred to, and American television has never been the same since.

The Series
Much as the name implies, the show was a parody of the many soap operas that populate television airwaves around the world. The multiple concurrent storylines continued from week to week. Running from 1977-1981, the show was the story of two families- the Tates and the Campbells. They are related as one of the main characters, Mary Tate, played by Cathryn Damon is the sister of Jessica Tate, portrayed by Katherine Helmond. Although they are siblings, the two families could not be more dissimilar. The Tates come from wealth, and all its trappings, and the Campbells are blue collar working class.

All 25 first season episodes are presented here. The beginning of the season serves to introduce to all of the characters and set up the initial storylines. In the Tate household you have the head of the family, Chester Tate, a womanizing individual who is having an affair with his secretary. When he attempts to finally break things off, she threatens to expose him for not only his infidelity, but also for his illegal business dealings. He is married to the matron of the family, Jessica Tate. As portrayed by Helmond, she is in many ways the heart of the entire cast. At the same time funny and poignant, she has the unique ability to bring you from laughter to tears within the same scene. Every scene she is in is priceless. She plays the character as somewhat oblivious to the events occurring around her, and yet you seem to sense that she is more aware than she is letting on. In the first season, Jessica is trying hard to deny her husband’s womanizing and she starts an affair of her own. Later the man she had the affair with is found dead and she becomes a main suspect (along with almost every other character). The third major character in the Tate household is their butler, Benson, played by Robert Guillaume. Immediately upon the series debut, the character of Benson became a fan favorite and soon was spun off into his own series. Although he worked for the Tates, it was obvious he runs the house.  

The Tate children have their own problems- oldest daughter Eunice is dating a married Senator on the sly. Younger daughter Corinne is dating the same man her mother is having an affair with, however, she is actually in love with a man who is a catholic priest, and she follows him to the ends of the Earth to express her love. In addition, she also finds out the in fact she may not in fact be Chester and Jessica’s daughter. Other than Benson, only son Billy seems to appear as somewhat normal.  He is going through his own growing pains, and is indignant at always being asked to “leave the room” whenever the adults have something unusual to discuss (which is practically all the time). The final member of the Tate household is Jessica’s father, affectionately referred to as “The Major”. He seems to be stuck in World War II Europe, and his moments on screen are almost always hilarious.

These are the Tates!

Now for the Campbells. The head of the household is Burt Campbell. Richard Mulligan plays him as a somewhat spastic but loveable character. He is married to Mary, a woman he met and fell in love with when he was contracted to build a house for her and her deceased husband. He carries some very dark secrets which cause him some very large problems with his wife and his stepson, Danny Dallas. Danny is a mobster who is trying to leave the mafia. The Godfather agrees, providing he does one last job for them. He agrees, until he finds out what the job is and who it involves. He is then faced with another decision. If he does not carry it out, they will kill him. Mary’s other son is the aforementioned Jodie. He is in love with a popular football player, but cannot express his love in public for fear of damaging the player’s career. Jodie then agrees to have a sex change operation, but at the last moment, his lover dumps him. He is crushed. A woman then hits on him and promises to make him rethink his homosexuality. At the time of the broadcasts, the character of Jodie Dallas was widely condemned in many outlets. In an effort to appease some of them, the flamboyance of the character was toned down somewhat as the season went on.

Burt has two sons as well. The first is Peter- a tennis pro who plays a more important role in the lives of the Tates than he does in the Campbells.  He and Burt have not seen each other in many years, and their reunion is short-lived. The events surrounding the end of their reunion cause Burt to slowly lose grip on reality, and he begins to believe he has the ability to make himself invisible. These scenes are some of the best of the entire season. Burt’s second son is Chuck, who carries around a wooden dummy named Bob. Bob’s direct insults spare no one, and are laugh out loud at every turn.

And these are the Campbells!

The season ends with a verdict in the trial of the death of the man Jessica was having an affair with and Corinne was seeing. It leaves one craving for the season two collection.

If it sounds like a bit much happens in the first season, it does. But the series does not stop there. In succeeding seasons, be on the lookout for alien abduction, cult kidnapping, demonic possession, amnesia, Latin American revolutionaries, corruption, murder, mayhem and overall silliness.

It should be noted that every episode of the entire first season was either written or co-written by Susan Harris, who also serves as one of the Executive Producers. Her writing never misses a beat, and she writes to the actor's strengths. Everything put down on paper is a winner, and most scenes, especially those with Helmond or Mulligan, will leave you rolling on the floor.

And this is what happens when the two families get together!

Video
The video quality of the transfer is not perfect. Originally recorded on videotape, the episodes are not as crisp as one would expect. There is some bleeding of images and the colors seem somewhat faded. Shown in full-screen as originally presented on ABC Television, it includes some opening sequences which have not been seen since they originally ran. Although the quality could (and should) be much better, it does not detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the shows.

Audio
Much as with the video, the audio is nothing spectacular. It is in standard Dolby Digital 2.0 English. As previously mentioned, some of the dialogue in the openings of the first few episodes are restored from their original presentation, and had been removed when the show went into syndication. Finally, although there are some slight drops in audio which are a minor annoyance, they don’t do too much to effect the overall enjoyment.

Extras
Here is where the collection falls short. There are no extras. Other than a few trailers for other DVD releases and a small booklet which only includes the credits and one-line description of each episode, there is nothing to be found. Although some of the participants are deceased, it does not seem unreasonable to ask that a featurette on the making of the series be included, or commentary by some of the actors or production associates. Hopefully this will be rectified in future releases.

Overall
I have to admit, this was one of my favorite shows when I was younger. This collection, while not technically superior and being very slim in the extras department, will provide you with several hours of uproarious laughter. There have been few series which have had the impact of SOAP, and even fewer which have been as funny.


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