Even as it struggled with lower ratings and ongoing backlash from conservative watchdogs, Soap
entered its fourth and final season with big laughs and plenty of surprises. The series was beginning to lose its edge with interwoven plots even more preposterous than usual, but its primary strengths (a great ensemble cast, risk-taking writing, and a delicate combination of humor and pathos) are still abundantly evident as Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) emerges from a coma in episode 1. In the 20 episodes that follow, Burt (Robert Mulligan) will survive a blackmailing scandal and, as the new local sheriff, begin a political career; Jodie (Billy Crystal) fights for child custody, enters into psychotherapy, and begins to channel a 90-year-old Jewish man from a previous life; Mary (Cathryn Damon) suspects that her newborn child is an extraterrestrial, and devastates Jessica with a long-held secret about her past involving Chester (Robert Mandan); and the now-liberated Jessica gets involved with El Puerco (Gregory Sierra, from TV's Barney Miller
), a revolutionary from the (fictional) Latin American country of Malaguay.
These and other plots--including an affair between Danny (Ted Wass) and Chester's new wife Annie (Nancy Dolman), and the climactic kidnapping of Jessica--ensured that Soap's final season was never boring for even a minute, and the one-liners are endlessly quotable as series creator Susan Harris (here backed, for the first time, by a stable of cowriters) dares to combine comedy with heavier elements of betrayal, alcoholism, life-threatening situations, and heartwarming reconciliation. These shifts of tone still qualify Soap as one of the most accomplished sitcoms in TV history (you'd be hard pressed to find a better cast capable of handling such a dynamic range of comi-tragic extremes), and with Sierra and a then-unknown Joe Mantegna providing the best laughs from an impressive guest-star lineup, the series mixed up its volatile ingredients with considerable aplomb and no small degree of genuine humanity. While some characters suffered due to the season's ambitious plotting, it's still clear that Soap could have thrived into a fifth season and beyond. Alas, it wasn't to be. Amidst threats of sponsor withdrawal and the inevitable fallout of ratings in decline, ABC pulled the plug on Soap, depriving loyal viewers to a resolution to this season's cliffhangers, which left several key characters on the brink of disaster. It's therefore regrettable that this DVD set lacks any bonus material that would provide a retrospective summation of what was, for its time, one of TV's boldest comedy experiments. --Jeff Shannon