BURTS coming out of the bathtub and soon will be committed. Father Flotsky fled but is due to return. Jodie the homosexual will soon find himself in love with a girl, but he'll get a new boyfriend as well. And Jessica is about to go on trial for the murder of Peter, the tennis pro, though the identity of the real killer may not be known until next fall.
Confused? You won't be after this interview with Susan Harris, creator and author of "Soap."
Or, if you are still confused, you probably won't give a hoot.
"Soap" started out the new TV season as one of the most prematurely controversial shows in broadcasting history. Catholics condemned it.Baptists condemned it. Something called the International Union of Gay Athletes condemned it. To all who thought "Soap" would demoralize Planet Earth, it had to be a disappointment. But as the controversy died down, both the show and its ratings have continued to improve.
It's no happy landmark, and it's still often gross, garish and uneven in tone, but "Soap" is at least the only show on the air that is just like "Soap."
How does Harris feel about the show's success? "I'm exhausted," she says. "I just can't wait for it to be over. I have four more to write, and I just can't wait for them to be done."
Harris, 35, is writing all the episodes herself, something very unusual for a weekly TV situation comedy. But then she doesn't look like your average TV writer, however the average TV writer looks. She's lithe and very attractive trendy-kicky type, with high boots over her blue jeans and surly curls slightly Fawcettesque; she played a hooker named Babette on a couple of "Soap" episodes herself. She's divorced, has a 10-year-old son named Sam, and started writing for television seven years ago when she needed money, watched a few TV shows and told herself, "I can do that."
Her first script, for an episode of "Then Came Bronson," was sold within a month.
The came "Fay," the short-lived NBC comedy starring Lee Grant, who coined the phrase "mad programmer" for Marvin Antonowsky, the guy who canceled it. "I was angry," Harris recalls. "They never gave the show a chance. On sexual matters, we really had to beat around the bush. It was silly. What was amazing was that it was okay with the censor for Fay's ex-husband to have had affairs while they were married , and to refer to them, and yet even after they were separated it was not okay for Fay to have an affair. Why? They didn't have to explain why. It was the double standard, of course."
Advance rumors about "Soap" were that it would be to sex what Westerns were to the horse.These reports did turn out to be exaggerated, and Harris says ABC censors have not been breathing down her neck as she dashes off scripts for each week's show. "I'm having a much easier time at ABC than I did at NBC," she says. Of course, she can't write whatever she wants. After all, that is not life - this is television.
"You know starting out that television is at best a compromise. If you don't, you're going to be very unhappy. And if it's something you don't want to do, you should be doing something else."
Say, this gal makes sense!
But beyond all the groups who protest about the sexual content of "Soap" are more substantial criticisms of the program. For one thing, what is it supposed to be? Everybody involved has said it is not a satire of soap operas, yet it is a continuing story and it is called "Soap." One may find individual moments of the show funny - the furious arguments between Jay Johnson and his malicious, rebellious dummy are on the inspired side - yet feel one is somehow missing the point, the big basic joke behind all the harsh little jokes.
"There really isn't a basic joke," Harris says. "See, you really haven't missed anything. It's the people who've found a basic joke that I just don't know what they found in it. I just wanted to do a continuing story, week after week. As a writer, it gives me a luxury I hadn't had up to now; I don't have to tell a complete story in 23 minutes.It's a wondderful luxury because I can put in scenes that don't advance the plot, things that are just good talk.
"'Soap' was a working title and it just sort of stuck. But really, there is no joke. It's not a parody. It's - I wouldn't even know what kind of comedy to call it because within each half hour there are farce scenes, there are drama scenes, there's a real style difference within each show. We have dramatic scenes now in almost every show. I've sat in that audience and watched people cry!"
Some people said "Soap" owed a lot to Norman Lear's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" - in fact, too much. "I had never seen 'Mary Hartman' when I created 'Soap,'" Harris says. "I saw, I think, one episode, and I didn't like 'Mary Hartman.' I didn't find it funny. I found it boring. That did seem to be satire, though."
Harris worked for Lear for a time. She helped write the famous abortion episode of "Maude." Controversy does seem to follow her about, doesn't it? The number of groups protesting "Soap" - mostly on the basis of a sensationalistic Newsweek advance piece - grew to a staggering length. Most of this has quieted down; ABC no longer prefaces the show with an elaborate "mature audiences" disclaimer; and sponsors seem to be less terrified of it.
"I never knew what all those people were complaining about to begin with," Harris says, legs crossed under her on a fluffy-puffy office couch.
"That Newsweek article was full of misinformation. They said there would be a scene of a priest seduced in a church. That never happened, and we never intended it to happen. But the Catholics got ahold of that and immediately banned the show, and soon there was this enormous movement to get 'Soap' off the air even before it got on.
"I was shocked! It's shocking! What really disturbed me was that this was a very dangerous precedent, this precensorship, and yet the press never picked up on that. Instead they just kept fanning the fires, kept attacking 'Soap.' We were the dartboard all summer long.
"Finally I just stopped reading the objections because there were so many different groups protesting. I wouldn't have had time to do anything else. As it is we start rehearsals on Thursdays and I just barely get the script on the table Thursday morning." (Director Jay Sandrich takes it from there.) In fact, Harris is momentarily interrupted by a phone call from a secretary. Into the phone she says, "No, I haven't finished it yet - are they rehearsing now? - Well, Jay can have those pages you have now, or he can wait for the whole thing -"
No wonder this kid is pooped. "It's 'not by design I'm writing all this. It's not that I want to. I have NO LIFE, you know. But I have no choice. There are no writers.I haven't found any writers who are special. There are a lot of mediocre writers around. There are a lot of mediocre anything. In any field. We're looking for people who are really very special. Because connected with this production in every single area are really special people. The cast is special. The set decorator is special. The director is -"
All right already with the special - if you spend enough time in L.A., you'll hear everything called special. Or unique. But however banal her terminology, Harris does seem genuinely possesed with "Soap." And some viewers are as well.They follow the story with wild fidelity - waiting to find out who among the daffy Tate and Campbell clans killed Peter the tennis player and bedroom acrobat. Harris isn't telling. She says the murderer is a character who has been seen on the show but whose identity may not be revealed until next season (it was originally announced they'd wrap up the murder plot in six episodes, but apparently it caught on and so is being drawn out).
"When I go to the dry cleaners, all they want to know is, who killed Peter?" Harris says. "When my son comes home from school, he says all the teachers want him to tell them who killed Peter. Yes, he knows, but he won't tell. People get very passionate one way or another about this whole show. I've had people who practically attack me and say, 'Get rid of that dummy!'" By "dummy" they mean, literally, the dummy on ventriloquist Johnson's knee. "And other people who just love him."
When former ABC entertainment president Fred Silverman was piped into the offices of ABC affiliates last fall to assure them that "Soap" would not pull them all down the drain with it, it emphasized that any character who transgressed on the series would in due course be punished. You can sin your little head off on TV as long as you suffer for it. Harris says she finds this standard more than just curious, but she can live with it.
"Television - that's the way it is. Outrageous. Outrageous. It's shocking! I'd like to see television expand its consciousness. It has. But I'd like it to more than it has. It has, but not as quickly as we want it to. As far as the guilt and suffering goes, it turns out that just about everybody on 'Soap' has a lot of tsuris anyway. That's a Yiddish word. It means like, a lot of agonY. A lot of aggravation.A lot of problems. Life is never easy. Everybody on 'Soap' has that. It's not because of what they do. Oh, sometimes it's because of what they do. A man who fools around with his secretary, um, and several other women, is bound to get in trouble because of it. And that's what happens."
There is talk of expanding "Soap" to an hour or to two half-hour episodes weekly next season - though this may be ABC camouglage to give the impression the show is a gangbusters hit, which it isn't. Harris says there's no way she could expand "Soap" by fall. "Not," she says, "unless Neil Simon walks through that door and says, 'Yes, I'll write your shows, and there are two others just like me.'"
Neil Simon does not walk through the door. Life is never easy.