Better living through 80’s sitcoms

Benson (TV series)

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I don’t get personal often with this blog, but I’m making an exception. The last month has been rough. The causes and effects aren’t important (to anyone but me), but … rough. Very. I think it took the whole month before I reached a point where I could laugh again. That’s unusual in my family.

The other night, though, I found myself laughing, thanks to a 70’s-80’s sitcom that had come up in my Netflix queue. It felt strange, which was when I realized I hadn’t done much of it for the last month or so. (Netflix almost got a laugh out of me with its shenanigans, but it was more sad than funny. It would have been a bitter and jaded laugh anyway. Qwikster, indeed.) My mother and I watched the first disc of Benson, the series starring Robert Guillaume as the head of household affairs (butler) in the mansion of the dorky but good-intentioned governor of an undisclosed state. It’s kind of wonderful how familiar some of this is from when I watched it back when it was first on (1979-86). It’s a little dated – oh, the trousers – but so far even the political jokes have held up; some things never change. There’s an infrequent whiff of racism that would never fly today, but overall it’s a sweet and sometimes very funny nostalgia trip.

The reason I bring it up, besides to encourage anyone who needs a chuckle to go look it up on Amazon or Netflix, is a single scene in a single episode. Two words of dialogue, actually.

Through the last month, I’ve been a little stunned by some people I considered friends. Given what I was dealing with, I curled into a ball as much as I could and still function at work – and they let me. Several people I cared a great deal for took what was uncharacteristic behavior from me in stride, and went on with their lives, without me in them, never, apparently, missing a beat. I’ve heard third-hand that I wasn’t forgotten – people did care but weren’t good at expressing it, was what I was told. My response was this: I didn’t feel like anyone gave a damn because I had no evidence otherwise, and my faith in believing without evidence was destroyed years ago, and the echoing silence just made me shrivel up and die a little more every day. I came up with a metaphor – even on my darkest days I can apparently still metaphor: If someone is thinking they ought to feed their goldfish but they don’t do it, the intent does the goldfish no good, and it goes belly up. If someone is thinking about how they care or saying it someplace where I can’t have any knowledge of it, the intent has no effect on me, and the result is exactly the same as if they don’t care.

I’m not saying I’ve always been perfect in this respect, but I have tried; if I realized an online friend has gone missing I worry, and I try to check on them to make sure they’re not dead; if I know someone I care about is going through crap I try to make sure they know I’m here for them. It’s part of the (apparently faulty) definition of friendship I’ve taken as true all my life; there’s a quote in a Dresden novel I haven’t been able to track down along the lines of “friends don’t let friends be left all alone when they’re hurt”. (I really wish I could find that line.) And what I kept thinking was that it doesn’t take that much to express it. It doesn’t take flowery effusions or purple prose or Hallmark cards – though actually a Hallmark card kinda does the work for you, doesn’t it: no effort required. What I kept thinking was that if even one of the people I considered my friends had shot me an email or PM two words long it would have made a difference in how I was feeling, maybe even given me a toehold to start climbing out of that pit. (One person I barely knew surprised me by doing just that, and God, I’m grateful to him.) Something as simple as a message saying just “You ok?” – like I said, two words – would have really helped. A point of light in a really dark place. Silence can mean a lot of things, but without further data I couldn’t, can’t help interpreting it as “can’t be bothered”.

Back to Benson.

In one episode Benson wound up with the duty of trimming the mansion’s staff by five people. He’d never fired anyone before, didn’t want to do it, had no choice – and when he realized that one of the people he had no choice about was a 75-year-old pastry chef, the sweetest little old lady in the universe and naturally beloved by everyone, he was barely able to do it. And when he finally got the job done, the governor’s daughter, 8-year-old Katie (played by the startlingly mature and not at all annoying but in fact rather impressive Missy Gold) declared war. Her father, of course, went to her and talked to her about why it had been necessary and explained that right now Benson was as upset as anyone and needed a friend.

So Katie went to Benson where he was sitting, depressed and dejected, at his desk.

She put her hand on his arm.

She said two words.

“You ok?”

And that was it.

That was enough.

Told you so.

Better living through 80’s sitcoms. The world is a simpler place on TV. Friends know what they need to do, and they do it, and depression is staved off before the credits roll. Sometimes it’s not all that implausible.

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