Once the syndicated series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman had created a market for satirical soap operas, the networks rushed to the post with comical continuing "dramas" of their own. The most successful product of this genre -- and one of the most controversial -- was the weekly, half-hour ABC series Soap, which debuted September 13, 1977. Put simply, Soap was the sexy saga of two families, the wealthy Tates and the not-so-wealthy Campbells. Ditzy Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond), the wife of philandering businessman Chester Tate (Robert Mandan), is the sister of Mary Dallas Campbell, who lived with her second husband, blue-collar worker Burt Campbell (Richard Mulligan). Jessica and Chester's children included the sexy, libidinous Corrine (Diana Canova), who ended up marrying defrocked priest Father Timothy Flotsky (Sal Viscusco); strait-laced Eunice (Jennifer Salt), later the wife of convicted murderer Dutch (Donnelly Rhodes), who had escaped from prison with Chester after the latter had confessed to the murder of Jessica's paramour, tennis pro Peter (Robert Urich) (who happened to be the son of Burt Campbell!); and young son Billy Tate (Jimmy Baio), a typical hormone-driven teenager who would "mature" to the extent that he was stalked by a scorned lover.
The Campbell children included Mary's sons by her first marriage: Danny Dallas (Ted Wass), a young mobster, and Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), a homosexual who nonetheless enjoyed several heterosexual relationships, one of which produced a daughter. Among the many other characters were Jessica Tate's father, "The Major" (Arthur Pierson), a senile, shell-shocked WW2 veteran; the Tates' snide, sneering butler Benson (Robert Guillaume, who later starred as this character in his own sitcom); Detective Donahue (John Byner), who fell in love with Jessica while searching for the fugitive Chester; Mafia daughter Elaine Lefkowitz (Dinah Manoff), who, before being kidnapped and bumped off, forced Danny into a romantic relationship; Carol David (Rebecca Balding), the conniving mother of Jodie's baby; and "El Puerco" (Gregory Sierra), a South American revolutionary who became enamored of Jessica. The various and sundry plots and subplots wending their way through Soap's four seasons are far too multitudinous and complex to explain here. Suffice to say that the storylines incorporated false murder charges, amnesia, suicidal lesbians, interracial marriage, religious cults (in this case a group called the "Sunnies"), UFO abductions, extraterrestrial clones, satanic possessions, and banana-republic firing squads. In other words, Soap was just your average, typical soap opera, but with a laugh track. Even before the series debuted, Soap was under attack from a vast array of "clean up TV" brigades, religious organizations, and self-styled social arbiters. On the other hand, the series had scores of high-profile defenders who recognized Soap for what it truly was: A pungent lampoon of modern manners and mores, served up in a humorous and exaggerated fashion with no malice intended. The series ended on April 20, 1981, with its traditional season-ending "cliffhanger" -- which in this instance would not be resolved the following season. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi