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HTF REVIEW: Benson The Complete First Season

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#1 of 1 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

Richard Gallagher


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Posted July 15 2007 - 05:06 PM

Benson: The Complete First Season

Studio: Sony
Year: 1979-1980
Rated: Not Rated
Length: 597 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English
Subtitles: None

The Program

When the satirical sitcom Soap premiered in 1977, it was one of the most controversial series in the history of television up to that time. The National Council of Churches railed against the “immorality” of Soap. The U.S. Catholic Conference called the program “unfit for prime time” and lobbied to have ABC schedule it late at night so children would not be exposed to it. The Rev. Everett Parker, media watchdog of the liberal United Church of Christ, called the program "a deliberate effort to break down any resistance to whatever the industry wants to put into prime time." Even before the first episode aired, ABC had received 32,000 letters from people who objected to a show they had not even seen.

Soap not only survived the protests, it became a huge hit, ending the 1977-78 season at #13 in the Nielsen ratings. Although the show featured many quirky and memorable characters, one who made an indelible impression upon viewers was Benson DuBois, the black servant and cook who is portrayed so memorably by Robert Guillaume. Benson was, in fact, just about the smartest and most sane character on Soap, and when the first season concluded the creators started to think about giving him his own show. So it came to be that in September, 1979 Benson left the Tate household in Soap and took up residence in the executive mansion of Governor James Gatling (James Noble), the recently widowed cousin of Jessica Tate.

Benson was an immediate hit, ending its premiere season tied with Love Boat at #23 in the Nielsen ratings (it even beat out Soap, which finished its third season at #25). Benson was less satirical than Soap but every bit as funny. It was produced by the same team that put Soap on the air, including producer Susan Harris and executive producers Tony Thomas (the son of Danny Thomas) and Paul Junger Witt. Others in the cast include Inga Swenson, who was nominated for three Emmys and a Golden Globe award for her role as the combative housekeeper, Gretchen Kraus; Caroline McWilliams (who was married to Michael Keaton for eight years) as Marcy Hill, the governor’s secretary; and of course the aforementioned James Noble, as the naïve but good-hearted Governor Gatling.

As for Robert Guillaume, he had won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Comedy-Variety or Music Series for his portrayal of Benson in Soap. He went on to garner five Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Benson, winning once.

This DVD set contains all 24 episodes from Season One:

Change (Pilot)
Trust Me
President’s Double
Benson in Love
Conflict of Interest
The Layoff
Jessica (featuring a guest appearance by Katherine Helmond)
Don’t Quote Me
War Stories
Ghost Story
Taylor’s Bid
One Strike, You’re Out
Just Friends
Chain of Command
Bugging the Governor
Kraus Affair
Cold Storage
Old Man Gatling
Power Play
Takin’ It to the Street
The Army Wants You
Marcy’s Vacation

After its first season Benson never again finished in the Nielsen Top 20, but it remained sufficiently popular to stay on the air for 154 episodes.

All 24 episodes from Season One appear to be complete and uncut. The running times range from 24:06 to 25:10, which is about what you would expect from a half-hour show which aired in 1979.

The Video

Considering that Benson was recorded on relatively low-resolution videotape, the images here are quite satisfactory. The picture is a bit on the soft side at times, but that is probably how it originally looked. In general the colors appear to be accurate, although they are not especially vivid. However, the transfers appear to be very clean and free of damage. Compared to the DVD releases of other television shows which were recorded on videotape – such as All in the Family - Sony has done a nice job with Benson.

The pilot episode, incidentally, has retained its original opening credits, showing Benson arriving at the governor’s mansion for the first time.

The Audio

There is nothing to complain about with the audio. The sound is clear and intelligible, which is really what is important in a television sitcom. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is free of noise and distortion.

The Supplements

Sony has provided some supplements on this set. There is a brief introduction by Robert Guillaume and an interesting featurette entitled “Inside the Governor’s Mansion.” The featurette, which runs nearly 30 minutes, includes interviews with Guillaume, James Noble and executive producer Tony Thomas. One of the more interesting insights comes from Guillaume, who notes that he entered into the project with some trepidation because of concerns that his character might turn into a stereotype (although he does not mention Stepin Fetchit by name, clearly that is what is on his mind). There are also interesting comments about recording the show in front of a live audience. The live audience format appealed to Guillaume and Noble, both of whom had considerable prior experience on Broadway.

Also included is a six-minute featurette entitled “Favorites From the First Season” in which Guillaume, Thomas and Noble discuss their favorite episodes from Season One. There is also a gallery of still photographs.

Other Features

The main menu allows viewers the option of playing all episodes or individual episodes. The extras are on Disc One and Disc Three.

The Packaging

The 25 episodes are spread over three discs which come in a slipcase containing two slimcases. Each Disc contains eight episodes. Blue is the predominant background color scheme and the individual slimcases have photographs of the major cast members on the covers. The episode listings, with brief summaries of each, are on the backs of the slimcases.

The Final Analysis

Fans of Benson will not be disappointed by this release. They will also be encouraged by Robert Guillaume’s special introduction to the DVD set, because he implies that the entire run of the show will be released on DVD. Whether that is a fact or wishful thinking remains to be seen, but Sony has done a very nice job on Season One so everyone who enjoyed the show will want to pick up this set.

Equipment used for this review:

Cambridge Audio DVD-89 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable

Release Date: July 24, 2007
Rich Gallagher

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