A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this 1980s sitcom centers on Benson, an African-American butler who goes from being a household staff member to a political player. The show is funny and well written, but it also contains its share of sharp-witted banter that will likely go over the head of younger viewers. Parents also need to know that Benson's job (but, it's important to emphasize, not his behavior) is reminiscent of the 1930s Hollywood stereotype of African-American domestic servants.
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What's the story?
A spin-off of the controversial '70s hit sitcom Soap, BENSON centers on Benson Dubois, a dignified but sharp and outspoken African-American butler who rises from the ranks of domestic service to enter the world of domestic politics. Benson (played by renowned stage actor Robert Guillaume) is hired to oversee the household affairs for widowed Governor Eugene Gatling (James Noble) and his daughter Katie (Missy Gold). Life in the governor's mansion is anything but boring as Benson finds himself trying to keep the household together alongside the governor's eccentric political and domestic staff, including secretary Caroline Williams (Marcy Hill), press assistant Peter Downey (Ethan Phillips), housekeeper Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson), and the governor's pompous chief of staff, Clayton Edicott III (Rene Auberjonois). Denise Stevens Downey (Didi Conn) joined the group in later seasons, after Caroline married and left her position. Benson subtly makes fun of a politically dominant white upper class that isn't always in touch with its constituents' varying needs, and it is within this context that Benson's intellect and strong sense of ethics gets him promoted to state budget director, lieutenant governor, and, eventually, a gubernatorial candidate.
Is it any good?
Overall, Benson is smart and honorable, and he can be viewed as a positive role model. But no matter how successful he becomes, it's hard to forget that the show's original premise is embedded in Hollywood's early stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans as domestic servants. These competing cultural representations create a tension that's easily (but perhaps unfortunately) overlooked due to Benson's distinguished and intellectual behavior and the show's high entertainment value.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the different roles that African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups have played throughout TV history. Does it seem like certain roles are typically played by people of the same racial and/or ethnic heritage? Are these representations the result of existing social stereotypes, or are there other reasons? Families can also talk about the home life of major political leaders. How different is it from a "regular" person's? What does it take to keep a governor or president's household running?
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