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Series / Soap

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Clockwise from top left: Jodie, Danny, Burt, Chester, Dutch, Eunice, Saunders, Chuck (and Bob), Jessica, The Major, Mary, Billy. Not shown: Corinne, Peter, Father Tim, Benson.

"This is the story of two sisters: Jessica Tate, and Mary Campbell.
Jessica lives in a neighborhood known as Rich. Jessica likes life. The only thing she would change about life, if she could, is that she would set it all to music. The Tates have more secrets than they do money.
Mary, too, likes life. Unfortunately, life doesn't seem too crazy about her. As you can see, the Campbells don't have nearly as much money as the Tates. They do, however, have as many secrets..."
— Season One's Opening Narration, as read by Rod Roddy.

Created by Susan Harris (who wrote most of the episodes and later created The Golden Girls), Soap is a 1977–81 ABC comedy series that both parodied and emulated the serial storytelling style of the Soap Opera. It was perhaps the first Sitcom to include a Story Arc of any significance, and as such is still a rarity even today.

Set in the fictional Dunn's River, Connecticut, the series followed the misadventures of the wealthy Tate family, and the equally bizarre misadventures of their relatives, the far less wealthy Campbells. Over the course of a few years, they face adultery, a murder trial, abduction by aliens, demonic possession, cultists and mental illness (several times). The cast consisted of a large ensemble, including Katherine Helmond, Robert Mandan, Cathryn Damon, Richard Mulligan, Ted Wass, Robert Urich, Billy Crystal, and Robert Guillaume as Benson, the cynical housekeeper to the Tates, who would eventually be spun off into his own show (in which he would eventually become lieutenant governor of his state.)


It is also notable for being one of the first major series to feature a homosexual major character. Even more remarkably for the era, said gay character managed to survive relatively unscathed throughout the entire series.

This series provides examples of:

  • Adoring the Pests: When Chester is being held captive in his own basement by a fellow prison escapee, he befriends a rat and calls it Arnold. He "teaches" it to scurry away when the lights go on.
  • Affectionate Parody: Of the Soap Opera genre.
  • Alien Abduction: Happens to Burt, but it takes him forever to get anyone to believe him.
  • "Awkward Silence" Entrance: The Tate family, usually at dinner, always stops what they're talking about in mid-sentence when youngest son Billy (age 12) enters the room, in order to "protect" him from the adult situations they have to deal with. He's quite annoyed with this. He only finds out that his sister (and later his mother) are accused of murder by reading the newspaper.
  • Bed Trick:
    • When Burt is replaced by an alien who has sex with Mary multiple times, while she believes it's him.
    • Eunice has sex with a burglar, mistaking him as Dutch trying out some sexual roleplay. Though the burglar didn't intend to sleep with Eunice when he was robbing the house, he did take advantage of the misunderstanding. Eunice, upon realizing it wasn't Dutch, waves some jewelry outside the window and shouts for the burglar to come back.
  • Billy Needs an Organ: Well, not Billy. Danny gets shot through both his kidneys when he's in the police. Mary can't give one of hers because it could severely weaken her. Jodie offers up his as he's healthy and Danny's full-blood brother, then it turns out he isn't and Mary reveals that Danny's real father is Chester, who is convinced to give up one of his kidneys to save Danny.
  • Black Belt in Origami: Billy threatens his girlfriend's ex with Tai Chi.
  • Black Comedy: Murder, suicide, racism, homophobia, and mental illness (among other things) were all fair game for jokes. That said, racists and homophobes were nearly always played as fools, if not the butt of the joke.
  • Bolivian Army Ending:
    • The last episode sees Burt, Jessica, Danny, and Annie two seconds from being executed, all in separate events.
    • A later Benson episode has Jessica appear in "ghost" form. However, she tells Benson that she's not dead, just in a coma in a South American hospital.
    • Susan Harris has indicated that had the show gone to a fifth season, the rifles that shot Jessica would have had blanks in them.
  • Breakout Character: Benson starts out in a relatively minor, supporting role, but quickly becomes one of the main characters. He finally left later on to become the protagonist of his own show.
  • Bungled Suicide:
    • Chester's Played for Laughs suicide attempt at the end of Season 1, when Jessica is getting arrested for Peter's death and Chester realizes that his life is ruined not only by this, but by multiple other things. Burt keeps interrupting him, for example by taking the knives away to be sharpened. Eventually, Chester's about to drop a heavy pot on his head, but Burt comes in and proves how sharp the knives are by cutting the rope the pot is hanging from. Chester is knocked out, but (of course) survives. The knock on the head causes Chester to remember that he's the one who killed Peter Campbell. It later turns out that he's had a brain tumor for quite some time, affecting his memory, and surgery and several more knocks to the head turn it off and on again.
    • Jodie's Played for Drama after Dennis leaves him.
  • Bury Your Gays: An early and fairly spectacular aversion.
  • The Butler Did It: Discussed. Benson is one of the five people accused of Peter's murder in the Cliffhanger ending of the first season. The reason the Chief of Police puts Benson down as a suspect is that "We all know, in many, many cases like this the Butler Did It." Subverted in the second season when it (of course) turns out that Benson didn't do it.
  • But Not Too Gay: Though it features explicitly gay characters, the closest any homosexual relationships get is romance with hugging and subtext. This is understandable as the show was made in the 1970s.
  • Camp Gay: Jodie is extremely camp at the very start of the show, but after a few episodes this softens down a lot. He tends to play it up around the slightly homophobic Burt to tease him, as he notices it makes him uncomfortable.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Benson's "You want me to get that?" in response to the doorbell.
    • And Jessica's "If you don't mind" in response to Benson's catchphrase.
    • Benson's "My my my..."
    • Jessica's reaction to anything someone says that she doesn't understand. "I see..."
  • Characterization Marches On: In regards to Benson's character. He's known for disliking his job and his catch phrase is "You want me to get that?" whenever the doorbell rings. However, in the first few episodes of the show, he is very adamant that being the butler is his job and he won't let anybody else do what he's supposed to (e.g. in one episode he trips Burt up before he can answer the door because that's his (Benson's) job).
  • Cliffhanger: Many, but arguably the voice over at the end of the last episode of the first season was the most memorable. Just after Jessica is found guilty, images of Chester, Burt, Corinne, Jodie, and Benson appear onscreen.
    Voiceover: Jessica Tate did NOT kill Peter Campbell. One of these five people...DID. Who killed Peter Campbell?
  • Clock Discrepancy: In an episode, Mary sets the alarm clock forward a half-hour so she and Burt can have time to talk before he goes to work. When she tells him about it, he tries to go back to bed for another half-hour of sleep.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander:
    • Jessica, who frequently seems to live in her own world, and isn't always very quick at drawing the obvious (to everybody else) conclusions.
    • Burt could be considered one too. He certainly gives that impression with his talk about invisibility and alien abductions.
    • The Major takes this Up to Eleven. In his mind, World War II has never ended, he believes the people around him are soldiers (friends or enemies), and tends to interpret any dramatic event as combat action.
  • Coincidental Broadcast, newspaper edition: Corinne is arrested for the murder of Peter Campbell in Connecticut. Her birth mother reads about the arrest in her local Ecuador.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: The lifeblood of the show.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Jessica does this all the time.
  • Construction Zone Calamity:
    • Burt owns a construction company and brings stepson Danny into the business. At one point they're up on the high iron talking and accidentally knock over a bucket full of rivets.
    • In one episode, Danny accidentally drops an apple. The cop (and his horse) was okay.
    • One of Burt's co-workers falls off a girder after seeing Burt sitting next to the alien that has been transformed to look exactly like him.
  • Content Warnings: Most early episodes were given a "viewers discretion advised" disclaimer beforehand due to Jodie being one of the first main gay characters.
  • Creator Cameo: Susan Harris appears as a prostitute in episode 15.
  • Cut Short: Susan Harris had written out a five-season arc for the show, but the network pulled it after Season 4, resulting in a final episode that ended in several unresolved cliffhangers.
  • Dad the Veteran: Jessica's father, the Major, who not only fought in World War II, but believes he still is.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Benson stands out in particular. Saunders and Bob have their fair share, too.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Elaine dies in Danny's arms.
  • Disguised in Drag: Jodie wears Mary's dress in the second episode, and Mary is shocked as to how well he wears it. Later, Danny meets Jodie in hospital disguised as a nurse (because the mob is after him). In the Season 4 Premiere, Burt and Danny While in the middle of Tibb's blackmail effort, find themselves regaining consciousness in a sleazy motel, both in lingerie, and must don some available women's clothes to escape unnoticed.
  • Disney Villain Death: The death of Mary's first husband.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: The first time they meet, Elaine pulls a gun on Danny and forces him to have sex with her. This is Played for Laughs.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Burt thinks a disease with no treatment means it will just go away.
  • Driven to Suicide: Chester, Jodie and Leslie. They all get better, after Bungled Suicide attempts.
  • Dude Magnet: Jessica, who attracts a good collection of the men around her.
  • Easy Amnesia: Chester spends much of Season 2 with amnesia after botched brain surgery. He gets his memory back, then immediately loses it again to a bonk on the head.
  • Escalating Brawl: One of the several openings shows a brawl that starts with Burt trying to get in front of Chester for the family photo, but ends up involving all except the Major (who is too out of it to notice), Billy (who considers himself the Only Sane Man in his family, and sits watching, amused by it all) and Benson (who steps back and shakes his head disapprovingly as they fight). The later opening shows Dutch and Chester starting the brawl that everyone else, except Billy, the Major and Saunders get involved in.
  • Evil Twin: Burt and the space alien sent down to replace him.
  • Expy: Susan Harris tried to update the formula in the "Soap meets Dynasty" 1990s sitcom Good And Evil.
  • Fictional Counterpart: The "Sunnies", a cult led by Reverend Sun, standing in for Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (known colloquially as "Moonies").
  • Flanderization: In the early seasons, Danny isn't overly bright. But he definitely isn't the imbecile that he becomes in later episodes.
  • Follow the Leader:
  • Food Fight: Fairly common in the first season, almost always involving Burt (although he rarely seemed to start them).
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: Averted. There were multiple plot lines in every episode, but every one advanced each time we saw it - and if even if they hadn't, they were funny enough that no one would have minded.
  • Funny Foreigner: Ingrid Swenson, Himmel, the German private detective and Carlos "El Puerco" Valdez.
  • Genre Shift: On occasion, the show would switch from goofy, over-the-top parody to genuinely poignant drama that put actual soaps to shame. Then, next scene, more wacky antics!
  • Good Bye Cruel World: Chester attempts to write a suicide note at the end of Season 1, which he decides to write on kitchen roll as there's no paper in the kitchen. After he fails to remember the correct spelling of "suicide", he realizes that it doesn't matter what it says as everybody will understand what happened when they find him dead over a note.
  • Gratuitous Italian: Danny's pathetic attempts at speaking Italian in Season 1 when he's under the impression he's Italian.
  • Great Escape: Chester is forced into one by Dutch.
  • Happily Adopted: Corinne, who turns out to be Jessica's adopted daughter.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Gay?:
    • Jodie. Though in all fairness, this was probably necessary, as he was seen with women just as often as he was seen with other men. This was lampshaded in season four when he talks to a psychiatrist who doesn't believe he's gay after Jodie informs him that he's had a child with one woman and is currently in love with another.
    • Averted with the Child Protective Services worker who interviews him, and becomes instantly hostile on learning Jodie is gay.
      Worker: Are you a practicing homosexual?
      Jodie: I don't need to practice, I'm very good at it.
  • Heroic BSoD: After Burt runs away from the mental institution (to buy a newspaper), Mary demands he tell her what's the problem that he's keeping from her. They've been through a lot and they can deal with it, she says. He tells her he killed her first husband. Burt tries to speak to her after this, but she's effectively frozen on the spot.
  • Historical Domain Character: Adolf Hitler is now apparently making a living as a waiter in the South American café where Ingrid Swenson is having coffee.
  • Hot for Preacher: Corinne, towards Father Tim Flotsky. Tim's reciprocation of these feelings eventually becomes too much for him and he leaves the priesthood.
  • Hot for Teacher: Billy has an affair with his teacher, Leslie. But...
  • If I Can't Have You...: After Billy turns Leslie down, she first goes suicidal, and then tries to kill him repeatedly. Played for Laughs as nobody notices.
  • Injury Bookend: Played With. Chester has amnesia due to brain surgery gone somewhat wrong. He gets a bonk on the head and remembers his life. But then very quickly gets another bonk and forgets everything again.
  • Interrupted Suicide
    • Played for Drama: Jodie's, after he takes a lot of pills after his boyfriend breaks up with him.
    • Played for Laughs: Chester's, after Jessica is getting arrested for Peter's murder and his business is failing. He fails to write a note (not knowing how to spell "suicide" and presumes people would get the idea) Burt keeps interrupting him, not realizing what's happening, and takes away the knives he was about to use to sharpen. He comes back and accidentally sets off one of the later attempts which ultimately fails.
    • In season two, Jodie is about to jump of a Golden Gate Bridge expy and talks to himself about how it all went wrong. Alice walks over to him and tells him to shut up as he's interrupting her suicide attempt, with her suicide letter muddled up in the process. They decide to become friends.
  • I Was Young And I Needed The Money: Sally had done a pornography film, and this was how Ingrid was blackmailing her to break up Mary and Burt.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: An odd variation. Alice chooses to leave Jodie when Carol's mother says she isn't comfortable with a lesbian being with her baby granddaughter. Alice refuses to let Jodie pick between his Platonic Life-Partners and his daughter, so she makes it simpler.
  • Jail Bait Wait: Billy and his teacher, Leslie, may date while he is still a minor, but don't actually sleep together until his 18th birthday.
  • Jerkass: Bob (who is, after all, basically Chuck's id).
  • The Kindnapper: Jodie's daughter Wendy is kidnapped by her mother Carol. Whether for Rule of Drama or Hollywood Law, apparently the authorities can't do anything about it "because she's her mother" DESPITE the fact that Carol sued for custody and lost prior to the kidnapping.
  • Kissing Cousins: Corinne and Peter. And they don't stop at kissing...
  • Large Ham: Quite a few characters, but Burt and the Major take the cake.
  • Lemony Narrator: Rod Roddy frequently poked fun at the melodrama during the Previously On… and On the Next segments.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Just like any Soap Opera.
  • Long Bus Trip: The fate of Alice. She moves out after Carol's mother says she isn't happy with her granddaughter growing up with a lesbian, but she's never seen again.
  • Love Triangle:
    • After Chester returns after his trip, Jessica has to choose between him and detective Donahue. She chooses Chester.
    • Carol likes Jodie, who is in an on-and-off relationship with Dennis. He chooses neither.
  • Love Dodecahedron: It gets extremely complicated by the end of the show.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father:
    • Corinne's real parents are her uncle Randolph and the ex-maid, Ingrid.
    • In Season Four, Mary reveals that Danny's real father is Chester.
  • The Mad Hatter: Burt. He's aware that many of the things he says and does make, to say the least, an odd impression on other people. Some of this, such as his stories of alien abduction, subvert the trope since he's actually telling the truth.
    • Burt meets a literal one at a mental hospital. A paranoid man changes hats every ten seconds to the "Argentinian secret police" can't track him.
  • The Mafia: Mary's first husband was secretly part of the mafia and, after his death, Danny joins. Burt spends the first part of the show convincing him to leave because it's dangerous. After Danny refuses to kill Burt at the mafia's order he "goes into hiding" (aka. he wears unusual clothes around the house). He's told he'll be forgiven for not obeying them if he marries The Don's daughter, Mafia Princess Elaine.
  • Mafia Princess: Elaine is the spoiled, rude and generally obnoxious daughter of The Don who has put out a contract on Danny. She saves Danny's life after falling in love with him; her father agrees to drop the contract on condition that Danny marry her.
  • May–December Romance: Chester gets together with (and eventually marries) his daughter Eunice's school friend, Annie.
  • Meet the In-Laws: Danny brings home his fiancees to meet his parents twice; both times it went badly. The first time he was engaged to The Don's bratty daughter and they hated each other. The second time she was black (Danny and his parents are white) and much tension ensued. When her parents came over to meet the Campbells the mothers agreed that it was a horrible idea for the two of them to get married, and ultimately Polly (the fiancee in question) broke it off with Danny.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • After episode 7 or so, Jessica occasionally does this in the most heartwrenching ways.
    • This also happened with Jodie's suicide attempt when the family get told the next episode they're also being robbed and every other line flips between comedy with the robber and rushing to get to the hospital.
  • My Beloved Smother: Timothy's mother, whom he finally stands up to in the end while she's dying. She curses Corinne and Tim's wedding as she despises Corinne for causing him to leave the priesthood.
  • Noodle Incident: After Jodie tries to commit suicide his friend and mother tell him that everybody has five stupid things that they do in their life that they can never tell anybody else, his suicide being his first. Mary tries to think of stupid things she's done, but each time ends up laughing and saying she can't possibly tell him that.
  • No Bisexuals:
    • Jodie defines himself as gay, and experiences a minor crisis of identity after enjoying sex with a girl, unable to decide if he is gay or straight. Apparently there is no third option.
    • Nobody else seem able to imagine any such third option for Jodie, either.
  • Only One Name: It wasn't revealed if Benson was his first or last name until the character had moved to his own Spin-Off, Benson (full name: Benson DuBois).
  • Only Sane Man
    • Billy Tate as well as Benson to the Tates.
    • Mary in her interactions with Burt and Jessica.
    • To some extent, Jodie is this too.
  • Parental Incest: At the end of Season 4, Danny has a relationship with Annie, the new wife of Chester, who turns out actually to be his father. This, of course, isn't actually incest, just adultery, since they aren't genetically related. Annie points that out to Danny, and also corrects him when he thinks they've committed "inquest".
  • Penultimate Outburst: This happens in Season 1 during Jessica's murder trial, since her entire family disturbs the court.
  • The Power of Love: Jessica Tate invokes this in a successful Hollywood Exorcism on Corinne's baby
  • Previously On…: Used for comedic effect. The codensed montage of the previous epsiode accentuates the absurdity of the plot. The narrator closes the montage with "Confused? You won't be after this episode of Soap" - but of course the viewer is only likely to be even more confused.
  • Private Detective:
    • Ingrid hires Himmel, a German detective, to discover Peter's murderer after Corinne is falsely arrested.
    • Jessica hires Donahue to find Chester after he lost his memory and went missing.
    • Jodie hires Maggie to help him find his kidnapped daughter.
  • Put on a Bus: Corinne and her baby move to California at the beginning of the fourth season and leave the series.
  • Quest for Identity: Chester goes on one after he loses his memory in Season 2.
  • Quitting to Get Married: Father Tim Flotsky quits the priesthood to be with Corinne. When he proposes she is surprised. "No, I quit the priesthood so we could go steady."
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: When Dutch, an escaped convict, is looking around the Tate house he comes across Eunice, who threatens him and says she can defend herself against a rapist. He's disgusted and says he's a murderer and talks about how everybody in prison looks down on rapists.
  • Rooftop Confrontation: Mary's first husband decides to kill Burt on top of a skyscraper he was then building.
  • Rule of Three: Juan One, Juan Two, and Juan Three.
  • Servile Snarker: Benson. So much of a snarker, in fact, that it's a bit of a stretch calling him servile.
    • Saunders, after Benson's departure.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Major.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In one episode, when Burt is feeling down, he talks to his priest about how worried he is and tells him the story of a man who worked extremely hard in his life and survived a lot of health issues (multiple heart attacks, etc.) who is eventually killed by a mugger in a park over a Schwinn (a type of bike). Burt says he's worried that his life will go the same way: loads of work and with no pay-off. The priest died while listening to his story.
  • Spiritual Successor: Arrested Development has almost too many similarities to Soap to be this by accident. Luckily, Cracked already did all the legwork so we don't have to.
  • Story Arc: Perhaps the first Sitcom to have story arcs spanning multiple episodes or even whole seasons.
  • Straight Gay: The impression Jodie made on many people in the later seasons, when his camp mannerisms had been downplayed. This was especially the case during the period when he was known to have a child with one woman and to be living with another.
  • Surprise Incest: Learning that Peter is Burt's son means that Jessica has been sleeping with her nephew and Corinne has been sleeping with her cousin.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Saunders, another African-American Servile Snarker brought in to replace Benson as the Tates' butler.
  • Tap on the Head: Chester remembers he's the one who killed Peter after his failed suicide attempt by dropping a really big pot on his head. Later, he loses his whole memory to a huge knock to the head.
  • Teacher/Student Romance:
    • Billy and his teacher.
    • Mary's English Professor was extremely interested in her and eventually attacked her on the sofa. Burt was always worried she would leave him for somebody smarter and happened to walk in when the professor was all over his wife. It was not what it looked like: Mary wasn't interested in the professor and managed to fight him off after Burt had left.
  • There Is No Kill Like Over Kill: Peter Campbell's death - he was stabbed, shot, strangled, suffocated, and bludgeoned.
  • Tied Up on the Phone: In an early episode, Danny tries to kill Burt by wrapping a phone cord around his neck. Burt, being oblivious to the murder attempt, takes the handset and says "Hello?"
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Jessica, Burt.
    • The Major isn't exactly a bright bulb, either.
    • When the mob is trying to kill Danny because he refused to kill Burt, his plan is to change his outfit every day (e.g. a rabbi, a female nurse) but still live with his family (he is seen moving out, but he never does). This works.
    • Actually, none of the characters (except Benson) are exactly on the bright side.
  • Unpleasant Parent Reveal: In order to get out of the mafia Danny has to kill someone, so the mafia will have something on him. The good news is that he gets to kill the person who killed his own father - which is news to Danny, he though his father died of natural causes. It turns out that his father was also in the mafia, and had been killed by Danny's stepfather Burt when Danny's father tried to muscle in on his construction business.
  • Ventriloquism: Chuck and Bob.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In one season, Jodie confronts Chuck about Bob (that is Chuck) sending him hatemail. This is never mentioned again.
    • This is most likely a leftover from the original plan of Chuck (and/or Bob) being Peter's murderer and showing a darker side.
  • Whole Plot Reference: When Danny asks Burt how to deal with Elaine, Burt says they should follow the plot of a musical, the name of which he misremembers as Kiss me Shrew note . It works.
  • Your Cheating Heart:
    • In Season 1, Eunice was having an affair with a married Senator. He chose his wife when she threatened to ruin his career.
    • Peter had affairs with every single one of his female tennis students (some of them being married as well).
    • Chester was known for having multiple affairs with various women while still being married to Jessica and was getting blackmailed about it in Season One.
    • Jessica (at the same time) was having an affair with Peter.
    • Burt is framed into having an affair which he ends up thinking he did (he was very drunk at the time) because he walked in on what he thought was Mary and her English Professor having an affair.
    • In the fourth series, Annie (who is with Chester and married to him) has a relationship with Danny because she feels Chester is now ignoring her. Chester finds them together and goes to shoot them. Then the show ends.


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