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Ghost Canyon

'Benson - The Complete First Season'
(Robert Guillaume, Katherine Helmond, et al / 3-Disc DVD / NR / (1979) 2007 / Sony Pictures)

Overview: Following his breakout success on the legendary sitcom Soap, star Robert Guillaume reprises his popular role as the beloved butler Benson DuBois in the fabulous first season of this hit spin-off. Though a lifetime fixture of Soap’s crazy Tate family, Benson is sent by his employer, Jessica, to help run the disorganized household of her widowed cousin, Governor Eugene Gatling (James Noble). Once there, the fast-thinking, quick-witted servant soon finds himself not only managing the Governor’s mansion staff, headed by housekeeper Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson) and helping to raise the Governor’s daughter, Katie (Missy Gold), but even advising the Governor himself.

DVD Verdict: Back in the summer of 1977, a show debuted that featured two hysterically over-the-top dysfunctional families whose sexual hijinks, a threatened sex change, insanity, mob connections, a snotty ventriloquist dummy, and murder, garnered 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.

I really can't say enough about how funny and charming Guillaume 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. This is a Full Screen Presentation (1.33:1) and comes with the Special Features of:

Video Introduction by Robert Guillaume
Inside the Governer's Mansion
Favorites from the First Season
Photo Gallery