Nostalgia corner: Benson (1979-1986)


One of my childhood memories is of laughing a lot at Benson, a spin-off from soap-opera parody Soap that starred Soap‘s real star, Robert Guillaume, as a former butler who becomes the head of household affairs to a politician, Governor Eugene Gatling, and slowly makes his way up the political ladder, eventually running against him in an election. Here he is in Soap.

The show initially revolved around Benson’s housekeeping dilemmas, his fights with the German cook Gretchen Wilhemina Kraus (Inga Swenson, also from Soap), and his interactions with chief of staff John Taylor (David Hedison in the pilot episode, then Lewis J Stadlen). After the first season, Taylor was replaced by Clayton Endicott III (Rene Auberjonois) and Benson and Endicott’s sniping made up most of the show’s humour after that.

During the series, Benson worked his way up from head of household affairs to state budget director, and eventually became lieutenant governor. During the final episodes of the seventh season, Benson ran for governor and at the end of the series’ final episode, with the race still too close to call, Benson and the governor made their peace with one another and sat down together to watch election returns on TV. As the broadcaster began to announce that a winner in the close election (with a third candidate also a potential winner) was at last being projected, the episode ended on a freeze frame of Benson and Gatling, leaving the series with an unresolved cliffhanger.

What would have happened if the show had been renewed? Well, in 2007, showrunner Bob Fraser said that the season ended on a cliffhanger at the request of the network and that the show was canceled after the cliffhanger had aired. Had the show continued, Gatling would have won the election and Benson would have become a senator.

Benson has several distinctions. As well as running for an awful long time and having a black character as the story, it was the first TV show to mention the Internet – or Arpanet as it was called then. It also fired Jerry Seinfeld after just three episodes. He played a messenger. He probably wasn’t a good actor then, either. Great show, just not a great actor.

Unfortunately, despite my childhood memories, I tried rewatching it recently and didn’t find it funny any more. Sigh. But here’s the title sequence and the first episode – maybe they’ll bring back memories for you and you’ll end up buying it from Amazon.