After I watched the last four episodes of Arrested Development when they were unceremoniously broadcast on a single night in February 2006, I was devastated that my favorite show had been pulled from the network. The irony, of course, is that I was part of the show’s demise: like many other people I knew, I did not watch the show when it aired, but in single viewings on DVD. Arrested Development was one of the first series I watched almost in its entirety at home on my own time, a practice that did little to help the show stay on the air by the time its low ratings forced Fox to cancel it. When the third season was released on DVD, I tore through it in a single night, once again feeling dismay that no show would bring such joy as Arrested Development had. That is, until I discovered Soap, a sitcom that predated Arrested Development by 27 years and laid the groundwork for the brilliance of Mitchell Hurwitz’s revolutionary comedy.
Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1981, tells the story of two families in fictional Dunn’s River, Connecticut: the wealthy Tates and the middle-class Campbells. The matriarchs of both households are sisters — Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell — and the two households become intertwined in a variety of melodramatic ways (including murder, adultery, mob plots, and alien abduction, to name just a few). Conceived by creator Susan Harris (who would later create Golden Girls) as a prime-time spoof of daytime soap operas, the show took on a life of its own as it tackled controversial topics like homosexuality, rape, incest, and oral sex with a lighthearted, comical tone. Soap immediately created controversy when it was added to the ABC lineup, yet it managed to last for four seasons as well as inspire the spin-off Benson.
The comparisons between Soap and Arrested Development are abundant: there’s the boozy, sometimes dim mother figure, the wealthy grown children, a looming criminal trial, a plethora of minor guest characters ranging from mobsters to criminally stupid lawyers, and even a ventriloquist dummy who manages to insult the rest of the cast of characters. With the convenient narrator who conveniently shares what will happen on each following episode of the series, it’s easy to see where Hurwitz got some of his inspiration for his multi-layered comic story of the Bluth family.
That the various societal taboos are presented so frankly is what’s most indelible about Soap’s legacy. The Tate family’s butler, Benson (played by Robert Guillaume), is a ground-breaking African-American character; his blatant distaste for his rich, white employers is surprising for the time, especially since his insubordination comes across as comically noble. The Tate daughters, both sexually active, aren’t promiscuous as much as they are modern. Billy Crystal broke new ground in his portrayal of Jodie Dallas, the first openly gay sitcom regular; the character regularly makes the homophobia of his peers the butt of the joke rather than the other way around. (A caveat: the depiction of Jodie is hardly perfect, especially when one storyline involves his casual quest for a sex-change operation; it’s representative of a time when sexual orientation and gender were regularly confused.)
The most striking comparison between the two series is that they both follow a multi-story serial narrative, a style that was never employed in a comedic before Soap (and one that didn’t become popularized again until Arrested Development’s cult success). While dramatic series always found solid audiences, it was rare for a sitcom to require a viewer to watch the series from beginning to end to fully understand the complexities of its storyline and characters. It proved to be both successful and detrimental for both series, but enabled them to have long shelf lives upon their respective home video releases.
Once you’ve watched all 15 new episodes of Arrested Development upon their premiere on Netflix this Sunday, I suggest watching the four seasons of Soap. While it’s no longer available on Netflix Streaming, its 93 episodes will surely keep you busy while you’re waiting for the eventual Arrested Development movie. It’ll even prep you for your next AD marathon; surely you’ve found all the Easter eggs on the series, but it may surprise you how many elements of Soap made their way onto the latter’s monumental run.