Spend any amount of time trying to get to the bottom of the organized protests that began even before Soap‘s first episode aired in 1977 and invariably you’ll hear about a single article in Newsweek magazine that is thought to have been the spark that lit the tinder.
It’s certainly something I’ve heard about again and again since I started this project more than two years ago. Yet try as I might, I could never actually find that article online.
However, I finally managed to get my hands on the actual issue of Newsweek (thank you, eBay) yesterday. I hastily tried to scan it and save it as a PDF last night, but the quality isn’t all that. I’ll try to bump up the resolution soon — things are a bit crazy with me at present. However, I include the text of the piece below. (One bonus to the article is the photo they ran with it showing one of the two actresses who played Mary prior to Cathryn Damon. Again, I will try to get a better scan over the next few weeks.) I’d really be interested to hear what you think about the slant of the piece. I must admit that it’s not nearly as harsh as I’ve been led to believe over the years.
99 and 44/100% Impure
As Fred Silverman seems to see it, it is never too late to wipe the egg off one’s face. Several years ago, the ABC programming head – who was then with CBS – adamantly rejected as “too weird” the pilot episode of a soap-opera satire that later became “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” But next fall, Silverman will unveil a soap-inspired prime-time sitcom that makes “MH2” seem almost stodgy. ABC’s “SOAP” promises to be the most controversial network series of the coming season, a show so saturated with sex that it could replace violence as the PTA’s Video Enemy No. 1.
“SOAP” focuses on the Tates and the Campbells, a pair of upper-middle-class suburban families with all manner of kinks in their libidos. Jessica Tate copes with a satyric husband who jumps on anything with a pulse, a randy daughter who is making it with the local tennis pro (so is her mother), and another daughter so prudish that she has never seen herself nude. Jessica’s sister, Mary Campbell, is afflicted with an impotent mate and a gay son who longs to have a sex-change operation. The boy dresses up in Mary’s clothes and preens before the mirror, trilling “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” This doesn’t upset his mother nearly so much as the realization that “he looks better in that gown than I do.”
Put-Downs: While it is more glossily packaged than “MH 2,” “SOAP” cries out for Norman Lear’s sophisticated artistry. Much of the writing has the subtlety of a chain saw, and the actors, all relative unknowns, mug and smirk as if they were auditioning for a Harvard Hasty Pudding show. Jessica’s loopy father, a World War II veteran who dresses like Patton because he’s convinced the Germans are still fighting, belabors a one-joke role to the point of inanity. There is also a black male cook to deliver the obligatory racial put-downs, but not even Redd Foxx could wring laughs from his lines.
What “SOAP” is primarily selling is sex, and with a harder core than any sitcom has ever dared. Most of the stations that carried the syndicated “MH 2” were able to schedule it in late-night time slots. But ABC intends to feed “SOAP” down the line at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, and some of the network’s affiliate-station heads, who screened the show at their convention last month, are understandably uneasy. “At this point, we don’t plan to run it,” says Dale Moore, president of KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho. “ ‘SOAP’ needs its mouth washed out. It’s not a new frontier, it’s a new sewer.” Adds George Koehler, operator of ABC’s outlet in Huntington, W.Va.: “It’s in the vein of a dirty joke. You don’t walk into a stranger’s living room and tell a dirty joke.” The reaction is more positive among advertising folk, who sense a ratings smash. “Salaciousness has its rewards,” shrugs Bruce Cox, TV programming director at Compton Advertising. “A lot of people are going to jump on this bandwagon.”
ABC obviously concurs. The network is so optimistic about “SOAP” that it has had the show’s writers draw up a plot outline for the next five years. Jessica’s promiscuous daughter will try to seduce a Jesuit priest (in church), the gay blade takes up with a pro football player and meets a stepbrother who is a schizophrenic ventriloquist, and some Tates discover that they have actually been sired by Campbells–and vice versa. In short, absolutely nothing is “too weird” for ABC—as long as the ratings are right.
-Harry F Waters