As a friendly announcer informs us, "this is the story of two sisters" in suburban Connecticut--wealthy dimwit Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and blue-collar housewife Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon)--whose class-divided families are bound by enough scandalous secrets to make each of these 25 episodes (all written by creator-producer Susan Harris and directed by sitcom veteran Jay Sandrich) a polished gem of half-hour comedy. The integration of plot and character is flawless, and dirty laundry was rarely this absurd: Jessica's cheating on her cheating husband (Robert Mandan, the show's underrated lynchpin); stepson Jodie (Billy Crystal) is (gasp!) openly gay, and brother Danny (Ted Wass) has Mafia connections; daughter Corrine (Diana Canova) is in love with a priest; Mary's husband Burt (manic genius Richard Mulligan) is a would-be killer who thinks he's invisible; and all of them are suspects in a murder case that fuels the season's cliffhanger finale.
This is ensemble comedy at its finest, and is it any wonder Robert Guillaume--as the Tates' insolent servant Benson--got his own spin-off sitcom in 1979? His line readings (such as "You want me to get that?" when the doorbell rings) are instant classics, and while Helmond tops the cast with her inimitable brand of idiocy, there's not a weak link in the entire cast. All those protesting prudes fought a futile battle: Soap was never naughty without purpose (indeed, the show possesses subtle integrity) and a large and loyal audience propelled it to even crazier heights in subsequent seasons. (Technical note: Given the shortcomings of 25-year-old videotape, with minor glitches and color variations, these episodes look and sound remarkably good.) --Jeff Shannon