In the very early '50s, ABC televised a series called "Beulah" about a wise and loveable, Mammy-like maid who was forever solving the problems of the white family that employed her. "Beulah" was a moderately popular comedy that employed such talents of its time as Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Dooley Wilson, who had sung "As Time Goes By" in "Casablanca."
However, the implicit message of the show was that blacks could harbor no nobler aspiration than to serve, comfort and mollycoddle whites. It was a counterfeit vision in 1950, and it's certainly no pleasure to find it resurfacing now -- and on the same network even -- with "Benson," expected to be the big new hit of the fall season.
"Benson" looks to be a dishonorable smash.
Like Beulah, the title character of Benson is a servant to white people, the butler transferred over from "Soap" to a series of his own. He is shown to be for the most part smarter and more worldly than some of the whites in the household where he works -- the home of a lovable dolt of a governor -- but he is still in a servile position and, like Beulah, he spends much of his time helping white folks out of those jams and scrapes they's jes' always a-getting into.
The series premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 7, and could hardly get off on a foot more wrong. Immediately we see Benson arriving at the mansion of his new boss only to be attacked by yelping Dobermans and sprayed with water from the sprinkler system. The imagery is unforgivably insensitive; it conjures up the fire hoses and dogs used against civil rights marchers in the '60s. How can the producers of "Benson" imagine this is fit material for the howls and guffaws of a laugh track?
"Benson" is the brainchild of Susan Harris, who wrote the pilot and also invented "Soap." Few people have managed to stretch slim ideas farther; with "Soap," Harris turned the sick humor of early adolescents and some '60s subcultures and made it commercially exploitable. How? All the snide, bitter and nihilistic elements are tidily balanced each week with safe self-congratulatory endorsements of tolerance, compassion and understanding. The hypocrisy is stupefying.
Similarly, "Benson" marches along as a fairly efficient laugh-getting machine -- if one can ignore the discouraging racial implications -- until near the last commercial, when sentimental music sneaks in under the abruptly recalcitrant governor. Depicted until that moment as a senseless clod, he suddenly turns to Benson and whimpers, "Most of the time I feel like an idiot, and all the time I'm scared." Voila! Any admission of weakness, especially by a man, calls for his complete exoneration in the ethic of the modern sit-com, and the show itself takes a quick, slick dunk in preeningly redeeming pseudo-sensitivity.
When the gov implores, "Would you stay with us, Benson?", Benson's answer is naturally yes. White folks are crazy people but they NEED him. And what finer use could he make of his life than to serve them? Well, lots of finer uses, obviously, but for some odd reason none occurs to Benson.
True, Benson does not shuffle or cower, but there are subtler forms of ethnic stereotyping. He does retain the air of superiority, though not air of disdain, he had on "Soap," but virtually everyone else on that show was portrayed as a ghoul or an imbecile. Benson was superior by default.
As in "Soap's" early chapters, Benson in "Benson" finds his principal ally in a child, the ultra-cute Missy Gold as Katie, the governor's daughter. Does Benson have empathy with children because he appreciates their honesty -- or is the script saying he finds in them a mental and social equivalent? In fact, Benson even expresses to the girl his feelings of inferiority to her because she's so bright.
Robert Guillaume has formidable intrinsic dignity as an actor and he keeps Benson from becoming a mere line drawing. But the script throws him obstacles that are ill-conceived -- so under-thought as to barely qualify as conceptions at all. Why did Benson have to remain a butler, anyway? He is a man of repeatedly demonstrated intelligence and integrity. Perhaps he stayed a butler because he signifies to the rich people who produce television shows the dream servant they've always wanted for themselves.
Of course it is difficult today to portray members of any minority group on television without incurring at least a little wrath. And there's no reason why every black person shown on TV has to qualify as a perfect positive role model for all viewers; that wouldn't be realistic. But then, "Benson" isn't realistic, either. Its dirty little details are not the result of a striving for realism but of an attempt to manufacture from synthetics a new parastic hit for ABC and Witt-Thomas-Harris productions.
As for the quality of writing, it is strictly so-so. Harris tries to mix acid farce and pseudo-realism, and so her tone is always teetering. She also proves adept at recycling material, not necessarily her own. When the governor tells Benson his wife was "eaten by horses" while "dressed as the sugar-plum fairy," the far less crude origin of the joke is obvious: that classic episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in which Chuckles the Clown was trampled by an elephant while dressed as a peanut.
There is all the difference in the world between that show and "Benson" -- light years, galaxies, worlds of difference. Meanwhile, the new season boasts two other series with black men as lead characters: "Paris," with James Earl Jones, on CBS; and "The Lazarus Syndrome," with Louis Gossett Jr., on ABC. Both are dramas, and both offer well-rounded, believable, dimensional and distinctive portraits. A step back toward "Beulah" is hardly in the same progressive spirit. Benson is a male mammy.