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"Benson" The Complete First Season DVD Review

Buy Benson: The Complete First Season on DVD from Amazon.com Benson: Season One (1979-80)
Show & DVD Details

Regular Directors: Jay Sandrich, Tony Mordente, Peter Baldwin, John Bowab

Regular Writers: Tom Reeder, Bob Colleary, Rick McCurdy, Jeff Levin, Susan Harris

Regular Cast: Robert Guillaume (Benson DuBois), James Noble (Governor Eugene Gatling), Inga Swenson (Miss Gretchen Kraus), Caroline McWilliams (Marcy Hill), Missy Gold (Katie Gatling), Lewis J. Stadlen (John Taylor)

Notable Guest Stars: Norman Bartold (Mr. Nettleson), Rene Enriquez (Raul), Art Metrameno (Captain Bates), Mel Stewart (Loromo), Wendell Wright (Caldwell), Beverly Todd (Francine), Meg Wyllie (Miss Ellie), Larry Hankin (Electrician), Jerry Houser (Marvin), Katherine Helmond (Jessica Tate), Louis Giambalvo (Driver), Mark Goddard (Eddie), G.W. Bailey (Gus, Bartender), Robert Phalen (Mr. Barnett), Roscoe Lee Browne (Howard Walker), Denise Nicholas (Carol Walker), David Rupprecht (Ed Sherman), Richard Stahl (Lt. Miles Gordon), Joel Brooks (Walter Harwell), Stephen Pearlman (Larry Watkins), Michael Bell (Petrov), Meeno Peluce (Alexei), David Huddleston (Gibson Gatling), Steven Peterman (El Gato), Ken Lerner (Reporter), Kene Holliday (Jake), Joy Garrett (Lady), Les Lannom (Bulldog), Ralph Manza (Crazy), George Pentecost (Corbett), Jack Dodson (Major Herbert Burton), Marshall Thompson (General McBeatty), Anthony Charnota (Sergeant Kingsley), Raymond Singer (Harmon), Murphy Cross (Lorraine Sanders)

Running Time: 597 Minutes (24 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio), Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Closed Captioned / Season 1 Airdates: September 13, 1979 - May 8, 1980
DVD Release Date: July 24, 2007; Suggested Retail Price: $19.94 (Was $29.95)
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Two slim clear keepcases with cardboard box

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Having spent six years writing episodes for television series including "Love, American Style", "All in the Family", and "Maude", Susan Harris tried her hand at creating a TV comedy of her own in 1975. The show, called "Fay", starred once-blacklisted, twice-Emmy-awarded actress Lee Grant, hot off a turn in Shampoo that would bring her an Oscar. "Fay", however, was doomed; NBC cancelled it early and only ten episodes were ever aired. Harris' first attempt at sitcom creation may have been a flop, but she persisted and for that, the rabid fanbase of "The Golden Girls" can thank her. Off a cue from NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, she would create that enduring, beloved sitcom about Miami seniors ten years later.

In between her humbling first effort and her long-running '80s hit came "Soap", a sitcom that parodied soap operas and drew controversy before even airing. This was not Harris' first brush with heated viewer response; in the months leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, she had written the two-episode arc "Maude's Dilemma", in which Bea Arthur's middle-aged protagonist considered abortion after an unexpected pregnancy. "Soap", Harris' second creator credit, hadn't yet taken to the airwaves when an early review in Newsweek warned of sex saturation, prompting a number of organizations to prepare outrage.
Against advance protests from church groups and gay rights groups ("Soap" offered one of TV's first openly gay regular characters), ABC and a majority of its affiliates premiered "Soap" in September of 1977 with 39% of active sets tuning in. The series would become a hit, earning six Emmy nominations and ranking 13th among all programs in viewership its debut season. "Soap" would run for four seasons, during which creator Harris would remain actively involved as producer and very frequent writer.

With her baby airing in a primetime climate that was heavy on spin-offs, Harris followed the trend and in 1979, she developed "Benson" around Robert Guillaume's popular, sarcastic supporting character. On "Soap", Benson was butler to the wealthy, unfaithful Tate family. "Benson" brought the character to the Governor's Mansion in an unspecified state, where the African-American would again serve as the lone voice of reason in a house of oddballs, this time as a lead and "Director of Household Affairs." The position's name is irrelevant, as long as one understands that Benson DuBois is much less a butler than an all-purpose fix-it.

The "Benson" title logo showcases the Governor's Mansion in an exterior shot that establishes the series' primary location. As Benson DuBois, Robert Guillaume flashes a pained, cockeyed smile in the role that earned him two Emmy awards and four additional nominations.

If "Soap" was marked by controversy, "Benson" was anything but. While it didn't generate free publicity, the lack of racy content or an edge also did not appear to harm the spin-off. Debuting four nights after Robert Guillaume picked up an Emmy (Supporting Actor in a Comedy series) for his work on "Soap", "Benson" would air as part of ABC's two-hour Thursday night comedy block. It followed "Laverne and Shirley" and was followed by "Barney Miller" and "Soap", which in its third season retained Guillaume for three episodes and welcomed him back for the season finale. In its first season, "Benson" would grab a slightly larger audience than its predecessor, ending 23rd among all shows for the year. While subsequent seasons failed to boast as high a viewership, "Benson" nevertheless had lasting power. The spawned sitcom would run through 1986, accumulating 156 episodes in seven seasons and nearly doubling "Soap"'s run.

"Benson" surrounds its title character with an interesting assortment of individuals that represent nearly every age demographic. The boss is Governor Eugene Gatling (played by the funny James Noble), a silly, aloof widower with a penchant for telling strange, wandering stories. His young daughter Katie (Missy Gold, whose sisters Tracey and Brandy also populated '80s television) provides the kid angle, occasionally serving as an emotional core or the target of heart-to-heart talks with Benson. German housekeeper Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson) speaks with a thick accent, but a clear dislike for Benson. The feelings are mutual and barbs are regularly traded between them. The closest thing to a requisite attractive young female is Marcy (Caroline McWilliams), the insecure and vulnerable secretary to the Governor. Rounding out the cast is Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen), the governor's chief of staff, who is widely detested for his shrewdness, and only survives this first season.

A mix of verbal, character, and occasionally situational comedy, the humor of "Benson" derives primarily from puns and miscommunications. The laughs are typically gentle ones. No first-time viewer is likely to have their guts busted by any of the material in the ten hours collected here. But while calling this series "hilarious" would be a gross overstatement, it'd also be wrong to deny "Benson"'s plentiful entertainment value. Much of the credit ought to go to Robert Guillaume, whose wry behavior and cool composure is unique and compelling. Guillaume would garner an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy series for five of the seven seasons of "Benson", at last winning the category in the show's penultimate season.

In the office that's never lacking excitement, chief of staff Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen) and Benson listen to the Governor (James Noble) sharing his thoughts. If "Benson" were a radio drama, it might look like this. The Governor, Benson, Taylor, and Kraus (Inga Swenson) read a script meant to throw off whoever's bugged the Mansion.

On far too many television series, race lingers over casting. That once meant that shows would get a token minority character or two in the periphery and today, it sees unrealistic relationships serving quotas. "Benson" is quite refreshing in that it doesn't seem to uphold the media's normal conventions with regards to race.
The protagonist is black, and this is acknowledged on occasion. But the show never gets overly concerned with skin color; it doesn't rely on it for humor and it doesn't trivialize other races in the process (although the character of the German maid is fairly stereotypical). Some viewers will always find a reason to complain regarding race representation on television, such as those who objected to the Huxtables' affluence. With "Benson", the biggest source that could fuel complaints is that Benson's blackness isn't regularly noted.

Race is pretty much the last thing likely to be on your mind in revisiting these episodes of The Complete First Season, available on Tuesday from Sony. You'd be more likely to notice the slow, staged delivery of dialog or the plenty contrived storylines, both of which contribute a bit of nostalgic charm. You might conclude that infrequent dabbling into character melodrama doesn't provide the series with its strongest moments. You may ponder the core cast make-up, which is unusual in that about half of the lead characters don't get along with one another, even if it's jokey, clever animosity that fills the mansion. You may be pleasantly surprised to notice that twenty-eight years since first airing, "Benson" hasn't aged too poorly. While not as funny or fresh today, the topical humor isn't necessarily hard to get and it's kept to a minimum. Likewise, the press release's claim of "politically-flavored episodes" doesn't leave half the audience groaning; there are political issues, but these are driven by common moral values more than any party agenda.

Those whose memories of "Benson" are fuzzy will probably need no reminding of the big guard dogs who chase Robert Guillaume in the indelible opening credits and, though unseen, regularly referenced for comedic effect. They may or may not, however, remember that one-time series regulars Rene Auberjonois, Ethan Phillips, Didi Conn, and Billie Bird were all absent from Season 1. Auberjonois and Phillips would join the cast in Season 2, with the former becoming the new chief of staff and the latter portraying a press aide. Also part of the "Benson" cast for two Season 2 episodes was 26-year-old comedian Jerry Seinfeld, still a decade away from becoming a household name for his self-titled sitcom, playing a mail boy. Conn assumed the secretary role from McWilliams in Season 3, while Bird would come aboard in Season 6.

The Complete First Season of "Benson" evenly divides the 24 episodes between three discs. Eight standout episodes have been designated with a star ().

In the pilot episode "Change", Benson saves the Governor with a plan that pleases everyone. Reluctantly impersonating an African president, Benson is downright scared when he learns an attempt may be made on his life. Benson shares a romantic candlelight dinner with a state senator (Beverly Todd) in "Benson in Love."

Disc 1

1. Change (Pilot) (25:08) (Originally aired September 13, 1979)
Benson arrives at the governor's mansion
and solves a dilemma which is threatening the state's beavers and troubling Katie.

2. Trust Me (24:38) (Originally aired September 20, 1979)
With her father out of town, Katie dupes Benson and others into letting her attend a Kiss concert.

3. The President's Double (24:50) (Originally aired September 27, 1979)
At an important function, Benson must impersonate the president of an African country. Everything seems fine until an assassination attempt becomes anticipated.

4. Benson in Love (24:48) (Originally aired October 4, 1979)
Benson begins dating a state senator (guest Beverly Todd) and with things going very well, he considers proposing.

Miss Kraus gives a few pointers to Katie, who's dressed like a witch for an upcoming school play. Benson has a very tough time firing sweet pastry chef Miss Ellie (Meg Wyllie). The gang gets snowed in at the Governor's ski lodge.

5. Conflict of Interest (25:08) (Originally aired October 18, 1979)
A scheduling snafu requires the Governor to decide between meeting the President or attending Katie's school play as long promised.

6. The Layoff (24:07) (Originally aired October 25, 1979)
Benson finds it difficult to fire a sweet, elderly pastry chef (Meg Wyllie) as part of an effort to reduce the government's spending.

7. Snowbound (24:58) (Originally aired November 1, 1979)
Benson reluctantly joins the gang for a weekend at the Governor's skiing lodge. When they get snowed in, they must fight hunger and helplessness while aiding a very pregnant woman.

8. Jessica (24:50) (Originally aired November 8, 1979)
Katherine Helmond crosses over from "Soap" as Jessica Tate, Benson's old employer and the Governor's cousin. In a pickle when an aging baron dies in her hotel room, Jessica asks Benson for help.

Marcy (Caroline McWilliams) is crushed to learn that her new crush is married. The Governor, Miss Kraus, and the rest of the staff join hands for a seance in "Ghost Story." Citizen Taylor makes a concession speech.

Disc 2

9. Don't Quote Me (25:09) (Originally aired November 22, 1979)
When a newspaper article includes a damaging off-record quote from the Governor, everyone on the staff becomes a suspect for the source of the leak.

10. War Stories (24:06) (Originally aired November 29, 1979)
Benson sets up his old war buddy Eddie (Mark Goddard) with Marcy and they hit it off well, with one hitch -- he's already married.

11. Ghost Story (25:08) (Originally aired December 6, 1979)
From power outages to lost objects, strange things are happening at the mansion. Convinced they're the doing of the 100-year-old ghost of the poisoned Governor Hartwick, Miss Kraus arranges a sιance.

12. Taylor's Bid (25:07) (Originally aired December 13, 1979)
Taylor decides to leave the Governor's mansion and run for public office. To secure "the black vote", he wants Benson on board with him.

Benson embraces his ex-girlfriend (Denise Nicholas), while raising suspicions of an affair. An earache amusingly throws off The Governor's equilibrium in "Chain of Command." Taylor, the Governor, and Benson squeeze into a tight bathroom because it's the only place in the house that's not been bugged.

13. One Strike, You're Out (24:09) (Originally aired December 27, 1979)
After unsuccessfully promising the mansion's staff he will get them raises, Benson must fill in for them during an important dinner as they strike.

14. Just Friends (24:08) (Originally aired January 3, 1980)
Benson's reunion with a dear old girlfriend (Denise Nicholas) threatens an important business deal the Governor is pursuing with her influential husband (Roscoe Lee Browne).

15. Chain of Command (25:08) (Originally aired January 10, 1980)
With the governor sidelined by a balance-disturbing earache, Benson and company plot to keep the Lt. Governor (David Rupprecht) from passing a highway appropriations bill that Gatling firmly opposes.

16. Bugging the Governor (25:08) (Originally aired January 24, 1980)
When wiretaps are discovered throughout the Governor's mansion, Benson manufactures a scandal to determine who's listening.

Benson talks with Alexei ("Voyagers!" star Meeno Peluce), a Russian prodigy who's hiding in Katie's room in "Checkmate." Benson and Miss Kraus try to pool their body heat, but only to avoid freezing to death in "Cold Storage." Looking like a wheelchair-bound Wilford Brimley, David Huddleston is just 49 years old when he plays the Governor's father in "Old Man Gatling."

Disc 3

17. Kraus Affair (25:08) (Originally aired January 31, 1980)
Benson and Marcy coach Miss Kraus in how to express her romantic interest in Larry the Butcher (guest Stephen Pearlman).

18. Checkmate (25:07) (Originally aired February 7, 1980)
An international stir is caused when a young Russian chess prodigy (Meeno Peluce, "Voyagers!") goes missing in the Governor's mansion. You gotta love when Cold War hostility figures in a sitcom.

19. Cold Storage (25:08) (Originally aired February 28, 1980)
Locked in a cold basement storage room, Benson and Miss Kraus fear for their lives, while preparations above for a banquet with the emperor of "Kurasia" are complicated by their disappearance.

20. Old Man Gatling (25:08) (Originally aired March 6, 1980)
The Governor's father (David Huddleston, 8 years younger than his supposed son) visits and irritates the staff with his rude behavior.

You're probably thinking that the Dread Pirate Roberts' has had his mustache grow in. In fact, this is El Gato (Steven Peterman) talking to Marcy in "Power Play." In "Takin' It to the Streets", Governor Gatling tries to talk candidly with the ordinary people, like "The Queen of England" (Joy Garrett). Benson is anything but amused when he learns that the Army might have exposed him to dangerous germs.

21. Power Play (25:10) (Originally aired March 20, 1980)
A mysterious environmentalist who calls himself El Gato sends the Governor "messages" -- beginning with a pile of dead fish -- regarding power plant pollution.

22. Takin' It to the Streets (24:08) (Originally aired March 27, 1980)
Yearning to know how the people really feel about issues, the Governor heads to a small, seedy bar with Benson.

23. The Army Wants You (25:04) (Originally aired May 1, 1980)
Everyone's worried when Benson gets called back by the army for tests to see if he was exposed to dangerous germ warfare.

24. Marcy's Vacation (25:08) (Originally aired May 8, 1980)
Marcy feels threatened when on the eve of her 2-week vacation, her temporary replacement Lorraine (Murphy Cross) is efficient and well-liked.

A supplementary father figure, Benson imparts wisdom to Katie on a fairly regular basis. Katherine Helmond crosses over as Jessica Tate, Benson's boss on "Soap", in the season's 8th episode.


"Benson" appears in the standard aspect ratio for vintage television, 1.33:1 fullscreen. Most of its visual shortcomings seem to stem from its origins. The picture is always a little soft, hazy and fuzzy next to today's television programs and clearly lacks the resolution of film. Videotaping equipment and lighting techniques for late-'70s sitcoms weren't the best and this is obvious in spite of a fine transfer to DVD. The cost-effective nature of production remains apparent. For instance, a small tan speck appears to be fixed in the left-center of the screen of one of the show's cameras for a few episodes; it proves to be distracting when an actor is moving around near it. How could no one notice that? Minutiae aside, there's nothing about the video that should disappoint someone with reasonable expectations.

The two-channel Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack provides precisely the expected experience; satisfying with the catchy '70s-sounding instrumental theme and its endless reprisals plus a clear, consistent conveyance of dialog and a not overpowering laugh track.

Benson himself, Robert Guillaume, appears in an introduction to the set and, here, one of two featurettes. Alert at age 85, "Benson" co-star James Noble (Governor Gatling) recalls his most famous role in "Inside the Governor's Mansion." The calming blue Main Menu screen is essentially the same on all three discs.


In a nice touch not always afforded yesteryear sitcoms, Sony has treated the First Season of "Benson" to some newly-produced bonus features. These begin on Disc 1 with a one-minute video introduction by Robert Guillaume, who gravelly provides some basic background information on the series.

Also on Disc 1
is the featurette "Inside the Governor's Mansion: Remembering Season One of Benson" (29:25). Though it's a bit limited by lack of participation (featuring only Guillaume, actor James Noble, and producer Tony Thomas) and unique material, it still provides a solid retrospective with talking heads and the occasional, relevant Season 1 clip. Among the topics covered here are the series' origins, each of the core characters and their portrayers, and filming in front of a live audience. Insight and information is found in the three speakers' observations, so while it's not the definitive "Benson" documentary, it's still well worth a listen and the type of program any show would be honored to have as DVD accompaniment.

Disc 3 serves up the six-minute featurette "Favorite Episodes", in which Guillaume, Noble, and Thomas each recall their favorite Season 1 episodes, with their reminiscences complemented by clips of the selected shows.

Disc 3's Photo Gallery is an 80-second slideshow of Season 1 photographs, which are spiced up by motion, music, and some turquoise and blue graphics.

Rounding out the bonus features are four previews on the final platter. Seemingly random 2½-minute trailers for the documentary God Grew Tired of Us and Stomp the Yard are joined by more relevant 2-minute promos for the revolutionary sitcoms of Norman Lear and TV Families. (There's inevitably some overlap as the two showcase some of Sony's more popular TV DVDs.)

Static, silent, and predominantly electric blue, the basic menu screens make use of much of the same artwork employed for the DVD case. (Each disc employs the same Main Menu screen.) Though no scene selection menus are offered, each episode is divided into 5 chapters which correspond to act breaks and credits. A couple of episodes use a shorter 40-second opening rather than the full minute-long version.

Conserving space and eschewing the need for inserts, "Benson" is packaged, like other Sony sitcoms, with the three discs divided among two clear slim keepcases, each adequately adorned with show stills throughout and episode synopses on back. A lone, up-to-date booklet displays Sony's large catalog of currently-available TV DVDs.

Blink and you'll miss it: Benson dons traditional butler garb in only one Season 1 episode, underscoring how he's moved up from the Tate household. Cheers! Benson and Gatling share poignant late night glasses of milk with some frequency.


Encountering "Benson" for the first time introduced me to a show that I didn't love but I definitely couldn't dislike. If you caught the episodes of this long-running sitcom's premiere season when they first aired 27-28 years ago or saw them in syndication sometime after, chances are that you've developed a fondness for the series. This fine Complete First Season will speak to those feelings, serving up ten hours of episodes that are formulaic but fun, breezy but easy to watch. The show has aged better than some other yesteryear comedies and Sony deserves praise for putting a bit of effort into this release in the way of catching up with a producer and the two leading actors for some featurettes. It's a step that many studios neglect, hoping that the nostalgia factor or reruns' annoyances will be enough to encourage a purchase. While this set leaves room for improvement in the bonus department, what it's got adds value, which coupled with the low list price, should be enough to push anyone uncertain towards buying this diverting collection.

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Reviewed July 20, 2007.

Text copyright 2007 UltimateDisney.com. Images copyright 1979-1980/2007 Sony Television and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.