|Benson: The Complete First Season (1979)
Starring: Robert Guillaume, James Noble, Inga Swenson, Missy Gold, Caroline McWilliams, Lewis J. Stadlen
When ABC premiered “Soap,” their occasionally controversial soap-opera-parody sitcom in the late ‘70s, the majority of the characters in both the Campbell and the Tate families appeared to be out of their freaking minds. But there was always one bastion of sanity: the Tate family butler, Benson, played by Robert Guillaume. As such, when network execs began floating the idea of spinning off a character from the series into their own show, it’s no wonder that the first name to enter the discussion was, indeed, Benson’s.
The pilot episode for “Benson” began with Guillaume’s character basically being “loaned out” by his employer. Jessica Tate – played by Katherine Helmond on “Soap,” although she’s only referenced by name here – asked Benson if he’d assist her cousin, Gov. Gene Gatling (James Noble), a recent widower who’s trying to whip his gubernatorial mansion into shape and failing miserably at the task. Benson saves the governor’s hide, as well as his reputation with his 10-year-old daughter (Missy Gold), by figuring out a way to get a plant built without destroying a beaver habitat, He is then invited to join the staff full-time as the Head of Household Affairs, an offer which he accepts.
As one might expect in an ostensibly political comedy, Benson often finds himself the only sane individual in a house full of lunatics. We don’t really see very much of the other cabinet members, except for the governor’s nagging chief of staff, John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen). The only other regulars in the series are the governor’s seemingly promiscuous personal assistant, Marci (Caroline McWilliams), and the Reich Marshall of the kitchen, Miss Kraus (Inga Swenson). The governor is a sweet but naïve fellow who accidentally found himself in his position because the people of his (never-identified) state wanted an honest man in office, and he’s constantly struggling to provide them with what they want, even if it’s at the expense of the relationship between himself and his daughter. Noble comes across as a slapstick Jimmy Stewart, which is just what the role requires.
Some of the episodes follow the sitcom-by-the-numbers format, but “Benson” regularly made an attempt to make a statement with its plots. In his quest to provide the people with what they want, Gov. Gatling goes to a bar to pose the question directly to a bunch of working-class folks. He finds out that they’re only interested in giving their opinions when they don’t realize who he is; once they do, they’re so convinced that he won’t care that they don’t even want to open their mouths. There are many episodes that involve the mansion’s budget, for which Benson is responsible, and he’s placed in positions where he has to lay off employees as well as keep the remaining workers from going on strike. It’s not exactly “The West Wing,” but the producers tried to slip in messages whenever they could.
There are also several well-utilized guest stars, including the ever-brilliant David Huddleston (“The Big Lebowski”) as the governor’s father; Roscoe Lee Browne as one of Benson’s old friends; and Art Metrano (“Police Academy”) as the mansion’s security chief. Inevitably, however, the best guest spot occurs when Jessica Tate arrives for a visit. Helmond’s air-headed performance (yes, that’s intended to be complimentary) is a laugh, but the sentimental ending, where Benson finally calls his former employer by her first name, is extremely sweet.
What’s most notable about “Benson” is that, although the show features an African-American actor as its title character, it very rarely descends into making race an issue within the show. This is a tactic that was all too unique in the ‘80s: treating Benson as if he was just another guy. Of course, he was no such thing. Guillaume’s comedic performance in the role is consistently hilarious, scoring laughs with as little as a raised eyebrow or an abrupt snort. “Benson” might not have been as groundbreaking as it perhaps wanted to be, but, thanks to Guillaume and Noble, it’s still pretty darned funny.Special Features: It’s a pleasant surprise to find that, unlike the shoddy treatment they’ve offered to so many of the ’80s sitcoms they’ve released on DVD lately, Sony has stepped up and actually put together a few special features for “Benson.” In addition to a new video introduction for the set by Guillaume, there are two featurettes: “Inside the Governor’s Mansion: Remembering the First Season of ‘Benson’” and “Favorites from the First Season,” both of which feature new interviews with Guillaume, Noble and co-creator Tony Thomas. “Inside The Governor’s Mansion” is an extremely nice half-hour look at the origins of the show and the enjoyment the actors had working with each other (they all originated from the New York theatrical community). “Favorites from the First Season,” meanwhile, gives the trio an opportunity to wax nostalgic on their personal favorite episodes during the series’ inaugural season. It’s just a shame Missy Gold couldn’t be tempted into appearing. I had a mad crush on her when I was 10 years old, and I’ve always wondered how she turned out.