Favorite Fictional Characters, #127: Benson DuBois
The early 1980s were a great time for wisecracking sitcom characters. Cheers gave us Carla, Family Ties gave us Alex, and Benson gave us...well, Benson. Technically, Robert Guillaume's uber-competent, exasperated butler originated on the weirdly wonderful show Soap, but it was in his own titular series that he fully emerged.
Benson was not the first show to feature a black lead, of course, television having seen the Jeffersons and Sanford and Son and others. But what made it so groundbreaking was that Benson wasn't the comic relief (although he was funny), he was the level head in the bunch, the wise and intelligent center of a hurricane of silliness. At a time when the formula could have been static, Benson insisted on escaping the shadows and thrusting himself into a more powerful role. While he began in a domestic position that would imply subservience and degradation, he moved up through the show's run to become state budget director, lieutenant governor, and eventually run for the governor's chair himself.
Benson was a man with a lacerating tongue and grumpy wit but also with an eye for advancement, and Guillaume's staccato delivery and brilliant comic timing were perfectly cast. Most of the plots and many of the other characters fade from memory - I recall mainly watching the show in reruns maybe thirty years ago - but Benson remains as an indelible testament to ambition and acerbity.