Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Soap in excess

TV Times, 15-21 October 1978


That much-ballyhooed premiere night of Tuesday Adult Comedy Hour passed us by, unwatched because there was a two-and-a-half-year-old little girl beside us who had already told us off many times, in her slightly aggrieved tone, that she had been watching too much kissing the nights past. So off the channel selector went to less adult fare.

But the week after, having missed the standard M*A*S*H intro, we plopped back onto our pillows and settled on a disarming comedy that elicited a considerable number of quite hearty and booming laughs from us. In many places, the humor is pungent and sharp, spilling over well off-center. The teleplay is an unusually confident one, fast-paced and bracing. The performers are definitely talented and winning, except for the nurse to whom Alan Alda had taken a shine. She looks too much the dumb-blonde, cheerleader type only television can perpetuate in an age of new and liberated women with more brains than boobs. And that aged running joke about communists on the operating table threatens to send the flighty war comedy into a nosedive, now that Vietnam has placed the POW boot securely on the other's foot.

Occasionally, the dialogue also quickens with fragments of attempted myth-shattering, the tone of merry irreverence unavoidably aimed against the pompousness of the army's image of itself. At times, too, the supreme self-confidence of the teleplay gives in to a faint moment of doubt, as if the show could not quite make up its mind whether to play for heartbreak or humor. Such a moment, when you catch it, is an infinitely precious one, offering an agile but still comprehensible glimpse of war as a horror-fantasy that tries man's true measure of humanity.

At such a time, however fast the laughs may come, we feel a poignant kinship with men who, like the essential clown, manifest both the sublime and the ridiculous in the comedy of human life. Luckily for those whose only wish is an uncomplicated half hour of laughs, such moments came infrequently in the episode we watched. In fact, only once.

Soap, though, is something else. Comedy, it is not; parody, it is. The sex jokes smack of malice, the double entendres are transparent, the naked humor is often silly, and everybody seems to have taken up sex so seriously it has now become the family business. Everybody, that is, including the faceless narrator who must, from his introductory lines, make it known to the viewers that the whole tale is of two families who are so hung up on sex.

I will not add that whoever watched it with true contempt must be so hung up on sex himself, because it can also be true that whoever watches it with real enjoyment must have already outgrown all his sexual hang-ups. But I believe that if one were to harp only on sex in a weekly series, as if it were the only interesting thing about two families, the viewer would reach a point of satiety when one sex situation becomes just like all other sex situations. Besides, would not the weekly laundering of sex take all the secret fun out of it?

We must applaud the first-rate cast, though. We especially like Billy Crystal, who takes on the role of the homosexual Campbell with charming panache. Even in M*A*S*H, the homosexual soldier is a knock-out. Why is it that when American-type queens are written out of their closets, they manage to acquire a lot of sharpness and wholeness? Is it because they then become less pretentious about their pretensions? Or is it because, in the grand tradition of all comic characters, they are the only ones who probably believe passionately in their own folly?

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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