Back in the summer of 1977, the most hotly debated show on television hadn't even debuted yet. Soap, creator Susan Harris' spoof of soap operas, had generated hate mail, boycotts and nervous advertisers without ever airing a single episode. When it did premiere, America was treated to two hysterically over-the-top dysfunctional families whose sexual hijinks, a threatened sex change, insanity, mob connections, a snotty ventriloquist dummy, and murder, garnering big-time ratings for its network, ABC.
One of the audience's favorite character, Benson, the wisecracking butler who seemed to be the only person in the whole show who had all his marbles, was deemed suitable for a spin-off. Premiering on ABC in 1979, Benson, starring Robert Guillaume in the part he originated on Soap, was much more middle-of-the-road in its design and focus, with any controversy kept safely within the confines of 24 minute plotline that Benson could resolve; the outrageous, frequently instigating multi-arc storylines of Soap were absent from Benson. The spin-off was achieved by inventing a widowed cousin for Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) in the guise of Governor James Gatling (James Noble), who was having a difficult time getting his mansion - and life - in order after his unexpected win at the polls. Benson left the Tate household and joined the naive, bumbling governor as a personal favor to Jessica.
Once there, he found his hands full. Not only did he have to steer Gatling away from the crooked politicians who easily could take advantage of the simple governor, Benson also had to negotiate the tricky office politics that permeated the mansion, including dealing with the stern, disapproving German housekeeper Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson) and John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen), the officious aide to Gatling. As well, he found himself helping raise Gatling's precocious daughter Katie (Missy Gold), who spoke, as Benson stated, like "a 47-year-old." Luckily, Benson had the governor's competent, loving secretary Marcy Hill (Caroline McWilliams) to help mediate most disputes.
Coming off rather like a cross between the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the TV sitcom hit, The Jeffersons, Benson allowed the wickedly smart-assed Benson of Soap, who may have come off as too abrasive to headline his own show, to mellow into a still-waspish, but essentially good-guy outsider. The governor, a meek, timid lost soul who could also be brashly dense when he was sure he was in the right (which was never), was almost constant prey for those who wished to manipulate him for their own political or economic gain (hence the Mr. Smith angle). Fortunately, he had the wise, smart-mouthed Benson (performing the same "commentary-on-action" role not unlike Marla Gibbs' Florence from The Jeffersons) who actively influenced the outcome of the political and personal problems the governor encountered daily.
Heavily hyped and predicted to be one of the new fall hits of 1979, Benson indeed scored some nice numbers its first season, hitting number 23rd for the year in the Nielsen ratings, beating out its host series Soap, which had started its inevitable slide in the ratings (it was 25th for the year). Considered a shoo-in on Thursday nights, following the previous season number one show for the year, Laverne and Shirley, Benson actually charted higher than that sitcom, which slid disastrously out of the Top Thirty when loyal fans couldn't find it in its usual Tuesday night slot. With ratings winners Barney Miller and Soap following it, Benson looked like it had a solid start to its run.
And although it ran for seven long seasons, Benson never charted again in the celebrated Nielsen Top Thirty. A solid middle-level performer, I suspect fans of the character had the same reaction I had to Benson after its first season or so: once they started to make Benson rise to the top of the political echelon within the show, his "outsider" status was compromised. In a bonus documentary on the series included in this disc, Guillaume (who's simply marvelous here as Benson) and the creators of the show all comment on how they were pleased to be able to show an African-American succeeding on a series without resorting to the cliched stereotypes that were often associated with such characters on other series. And that is one of the strong points of the series as a whole.
However, the minute Benson became "respectable," it changed the dynamics of the series. I'm not discussing race here; I'm discussing a classic comedy structure that allows the audience to root for the anarchistic, rebellious nose-thumber, especially when he's pitched against the established order, such as the government or politics in general. It's a proven formula that goes, at least in terms of discussing movies, as far back as Chaplin, the Marx Bros., Keaton and W. C. Fields. And Guillaume's beautifully tempoed snide asides and grumblings as he skewers the rich and influential (I love his half-muttered, half-swallowed insults that people just manage to hear) fit perfectly into that tradition. So the minute the series took the Benson from Soap and made him the more respectful, the more dutiful and ultimately the more respectable Benson of Benson (they even made him Lieutenant Governor in a later season), the edge went out of the character. Just as they did with The Fonz on Happy Days (to use a similar example in TV at the time), as they made him more and more respectable (from punk to garage owner to school teacher to father), they made him less and less rebellious and relevant - and less funny, too. And so to with Benson. It was inevitable from the start, considering how the show was structured, and after the first or second season, I started to tune out.
Getting back to Guillaume, though; I can't say enough about how funny and charming he is as Benson here in this first season. A classically trained stage actor, Guillaume can put about twenty different spins on variations of the same put-down, and he has a stage presence that immediately attracts the audience to him. He's the whole show here, and while Noble has great moments as the goof-ball governor (Noble, a New York stage actor, too, has a nice rapport with Guillaume), the character often times becomes too sappy, too sweet for his own good. That "sweetness," applied to many of the characters in Benson, would crop up increasingly as the show matured, further blunting the edge that Soap people expected when tuning in to Benson. Still, you have to admit that Benson is a cannily crafted piece of entertainment, with sharp, funny lines (most of them Guillaume's), good casting, and a smooth, self-assured production that almost guarantees the viewers that they're going to witness a polished piece that will make them laugh (although, like most sitcoms from this era, that incessant laugh track, used to sweeten the live audience feed, can be a little much). Probably the series' strongest season, Benson: The Complete First Season still manages big, solid laughs during most of its episodes, and I enjoyed revisiting this clever comedy.
Here are the 24, half-hour episodes of the three single-sided discs box set, Benson: The Complete First Season, as described on their slimcases:
Trusted butler Benson Dubois is sent by Jessica Tate to help manage the household of her widowed cousin, Governor Eugene Gatling.
Benson fears for his job when the Governor's daughter, Katie, manages to sneak out of the house to see a rock concert.
The President's Double
When an assassination attempt on a visiting African president fails, Benson agrees to impersonate the official - unaware the gunmen are now targeting him.
Benson in Love
Benson falls for a beautiful woman without realizing the object of his affection is a state senator.
Conflict of Interest
The Governor must choose between his duties as a father and as a state official when his daughter's school play falls on the same night as an important political event.
When the Governor insists on making some drastic budget cutbacks, Benson is given the thankless job of firing beloved staff members.
The weather and the weekend take a turn for the worst when a blizzard traps Benson and the rest of the staff in the Governor's winter cottage.
After a remark made by a senator, Benson helps his former employer elude the press and avoid a scandal.
Don't Quote Me
When the Governor comes under fire after an embarrassing remark by a senator is aired in public, Benson is asked to uncover the leak.
Benson introduces Marcy, the Governor's single secretary, to his old Army buddy, unaware that his friend has gotten married.
A séance reveals the Governor's mansion is being haunted by a ghost of a former murdered governor in this spirited episode.
The Governor's in a panic when his top political aide, John Taylor, decides to resign his post and run for public office.
One Strike, You're Out
The wily Benson comes to the aid of the household staff when they walk out after the Governor refuses to give them a raise.
To keep a romantic secret hidden, Benson tries to prevent Governor Gatling from doing business with a certain wealthy businessman.
Chain of Command
When the Governor takes ill, his second-in-command secretly sets his sights on replacing him - until Benson intervenes.
Bugging the Governor
Someone has planted listening devices in the Governor's mansion, and Benson is determined to discover who the culprit is.
Benson comes to the rescue after housekeeper Kraus falls for the local butcher but lacks the self-confidence to ask him out.
When a young visiting Russian chess prodigy goes missing at the Governor's mansion, the Soviets threaten war if Benson can't locate the boy.
Benson and Kraus get locked in a freezing storage room together -- and resort to dramatic measures to stay warm.
Old Man Gatling
The mansion is turned upside-down when the Governor's foul-mouthed, overbearing father pays a visit.
The Governor receives an unexpected and unpleasant gift from an angry environmentalist.
Takin' It To the Streets
Wanting to know what "the little people" think, the Governor drags Benson to a seedy bar -- and nearly comes to blows with a local man who doesn't recognize him.
The Army Wants You
Benson comes under suspicion by the Governor's staff and the Feds when Army records claim that Benson Dubois died in the Korean War.
Worried that her replacement may be a better worker, Marcy is reluctant to take her vacation for fear of losing her job.
Never a great looking show to begin with, Benson: The Complete First Season looks about as good as it's going to get, with the cheap video image intact from its original broadcast run.
The Dolby Digital English mono accurately recreates the original broadcast presentation.
On disc one, there's a short video introduction from Guillaume, welcoming you to the disc set. As well, there's a 30 minute featurette, Inside the Governor's Mansion, where Guillaume, Noble and producer Tony Thomas reminisce about the show. Guillaume has some thoughtful insights about the series. On disc three, there's a five and a half minute Favorites from Season One, where Guillaume picks some of his favorite moments from the show. There's also an animated photo gallery included.
The best season of the series, Benson: The Complete First Season is a welcome trip back to Sitcom-Land, circa 1979. Robert Guillaume is almost the whole show here, and he's simply wonderful as the snarky, muttering, disdainful yet loveable Benson. The scripts may not be the most original, but they're well-written with plenty of snappy one-liners, and the supporting cast is fine. If you were a fan of the show, you'll no doubt enjoy revisiting it. I recommend Benson: The Complete First Season.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.