Saturday, July 24, 2004

Confused? You Won't Be...

In a previous post I mentioned that the second season of Soap is now on DVD. This set, unlike the first, includes an extra: a new twenty-minute featurette where creator Susan Harris and producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas (the three formed the "Witt Thomas Harris" partnership and went on to do The Golden Girls) talk about the show. Not very enlightening, frankly, but it's there.

In talking about the origins of the show, they of course avoid mentioning the obvious inspiration: Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a parody of soap operas that had gone directly to syndication when none of the networks wanted it; Mary Hartman was a hit in syndication, and ABC clearly wanted something like it but not too much like it. It would be unfair to call Soap a copy of Mary Hartman, though. That show was bascially a soap opera that happened to be funny. It was shot like soap opera, ran every day. Soap was a prime-time sitcom, shot with a studio audience. It was not so much a satire of soap operas as a sitcom that happened to use soap-opera plots and soap-opera serialization. The point, as Witt, Thomas and Harris acknowledge, was not so much to parody soap operas as to expand the range of stories available to a sitcom, by freeing it from the need to create self-contained half-hour stories.

So Soap is basically a conventional sitcom with traditional sitcom characters -- the ditzy rich woman, the wisecracking servant -- except that the situations these characters get into are bizarre and the stories don't resolve themselves by the end of the episode. That's why the characters are constantly talking about how weird their lives are: no episode is complete without a character offering some observation on how odd this family is or what strange things are going on. To a soap opera character, these situations are horrible but not strange. But Soap is not about soap opera characters; it's about sitcom characters who find themselves stuck in a soap-opera world. That's what makes the show work.

Susan Harris wrote every episode in the first season; in the second season, she continued to write every episode but finally took on a writing partner, Stu Silver. The fact that the show was not staff-written, that all the scripts are basically in Susan Harris's voice, is a weakness and a strength. The weakness is that Harris keeps going back to the same bag of tricks; there are so many scenes with women sitting around talking about how they like sex (this would of course be the basis for Golden Girls too), so many ditz jokes for the Katherine Helmond character, so many designated Heartfelt Moments. The good thing is that the show doesn't have the over-polished, lifeless feel of sitcom scripts written by committee, where the punchlines fall heavily every thirty seconds and the comedy rhythm is tiresomely predictable. The Soap scenes often go on longer than you'd expect from a sitcom conversation; they go off on tangents unrelated to the plot if Harris feels like talking about something (sex, mostly); they get laughs from jokes that aren't exactly normal sitcom jokes. That feeling of being written in one voice, one idiosyncratic voice, is an advantage to the sitcom with a small writing staff, as opposed to a sitcom with twenty writers and no writing style of its own.

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