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Television: Gentle Ben

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In case you didn't already know—and you'd have to have spent the last several months on another planet not to—Benny and Alice have been getting it on. Further identification probably isn't necessary. Most of us feel we've been on a first-name basis with Benny, anyway, throughout the four-year run of "L.A. Law" on NBC, which is a tribute to the show's writers and to Larry Drake's portrayal of McKenzie, Brackman's mentally retarded file clerk.

The same sort of friendly familiarity is generated by Chris Burke and the creators of ABC's "Life Goes On," which features Bill Smitrovich and Patty Lupone as the parents of a retarded teenager who is sent to high school with brighter youngsters after years of special ed. 'What's notable about the series, which is far more simpleminded than "L.A. Law," is that Burke, who plays the retarded boy, Corky, has Down's Syndrome himself.

Broth networks should be commended for tackling the subject of mental retardation—and for doing so, for the most part, with thoughtfulness and good humor. That said, this writer—a Bennyphile from way back—is beginning to have his doubts.

I was encouraged early in the season when it became clear from the opening credits of "L.A. Law" that the writers had a bigger role in mind for Benny. He now figures more prominently in those introductory scenes (as Emmy winners tend to do), and in the first two episodes of the season Benny's misadventures as a novice Romeo monopolized the attention not only of the viewers but of the entire McKenzie, Brackman workforce as well. And it was here that I began, first to squirm, then to seethe.

Every one of the law firm's employees seems to know about Benny's sex life and his relationship with Alice (Amanda Plummer), who is also mentally retarded. Most of them appear to have discussed the intimate details among 'themselves, and a number have seen fit to counsel Benny on the subject and—with astonishing presumption—to speak sharply to Alice's father, one of the firm's biggest clients, about his decisions regarding her.

This is not surprising, considering the self-righteousness of the firm's lawyers. It is remarkable, however, that their meddling is presented as evidence of virtue, grounded as it is in their deep concern for Benny—and for Alice, whom they hardly know. Alice's chief advocate is Abigail Perkins (Michele Greene), to whom Benny once showed a photocopy of his girlfriend's face.

"L.A. Law" is taking great pains to show that the retarded, like republicans, are people, too, and this is a laudable goal. Whether its creators have the good sense to pull it off—or whether the series itself is not too slickly sleazy a setting for such a message—is becoming increasingly questionable.

Consider the season's second episode, in which Benny's overseers resolve to lecture him about responsible sex, and Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits) takes him condom shopping. If this wasn't the kinkiest—and most manipulative—single episode ever presented in network television drama, you can't say "L.A. Law" didn't try. While Benny learns about his sexuality, the lawyers are working on three cases, each of which is to tell us something—just what, isn't clear—about our own.

Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) is prosecuting a Fred Rogers look-alike accused of embezzlement. He's not responsible, he says, because he was under the spell of his dominatrix secretary, who told him to do it. "They used to play games," the man's attorney explains. "He'd clean her bathroom, and for a reward she'd let him chew on one of her sweatsocks." Found guilty, the defendant is overcome by gratitude. "Thank you, Mistress Van Owen," he cries. "Let me lie face down in your dirty bathwater!"

Meanwhile, in a subplot that mixes miscegenation with misogyny, Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) defends an elegant black college professor accused of bludgeoning to death a white student with whom he was having an affair. "This man is fluent in Russian. I know he's innocent," Kuzak tells Van Owen, implying a correspondence between human decency and a high, I.Q. that Benny's good-heartedness, and the defendant's apparent guilt, are supposed to disprove.

Finally, Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) is up to his old tricks, though his violence is only psychic. This time the wily divorce lawyer ignores the objections of a well-meaning client who wants to spare her children and her soon-to-be ex-husband the pain of an acrimonious divorce. Arnie delves into the man's military record. He discovers that the husband's less-than-honorable discharge was the result of a homosexual incident and accuses him of trying to "beat up" his wife in a divorce settlement "to prove you're a man." (Arnie has earlier announced at a legal conference that he is willing to settle but certainly won't "bend over and drop my pants.")

It is against this steamy tableau of sadomasochism that Benny's sexual awakening is presented, and his sexuality is predictably sweet, sincere, non-threatening, and uncomplicated. The objective here is no doubt to convince us that retarded people can be sexually "normal." This, too, is probably a worthy goal, but I have deep reservations about how "L.A. Law" has tried to achieve it.

First, it is not necessary to depict the rest of humanity as hopelessly depraved to make the case. This approach suggests, in fact, something altogether more problematic: that by virtue of his slow-wittedness Benny is if anything more "normal" than the rest of us. I'm not sure the minds behind "L.A. Law" would be able to tell us what that means, or, if they could, that they would be able to convince us it is true.

Second, there seems to be something degradingly patronizing about the assumption that a retarded adult's sexuality, or any other aspect of his nature, is necessarily less complicated than anyone else's. I'm not sure that's true, either.

Unfortunately, "L.A. Law" has been giving us this sort of simplistic message week after week, and receiving high marks for it. There have been exceptions. There was an intriguing episode last year, for instance, in which Benny, wrongly accused of assaulting a woman, wrestled with his own sexual ignorance and confusion, and out of that struggle we were allowed to glimpse his basic decency.

In another episode, Benny received flowers from a sexy business associate of Arnie's. When Benny discovered that her interest was in Arnie and not him, he was allowed to show outright rage, an emotion that has otherwise been denied him throughout the series, despite the fact that the frustrations of his life must be considerable. Such moments are all too rare now, and Benny's simpleminded wonderfulness is getting a bit irksome—and maybe even harmful to the cause his character is supposedly doing so much to advance.

That may also be the case, unfortunately, with Corky in "Life Goes On." While aimed at a decidedly different audience, ABC's hyper-heartwarming "family drama" is no less guilty of condescension. Burke brings a good deal of charm to the role—many times more, certainly, than do his two screen sisters, played by Monique Lanier and Kellie Martin, neither of whom suffers from any recognizable handicap other than utter charmlessness.

But at least in the episodes I have seen, Corky, like Benny, is preposterously cheerful, trusting, loyal, and kind. He is long-suffering and even docile, his role almost interchangeable with that of the family dog, Arnold. The only thing that would prevent the two from switching parts, in fact, is that Corky speaks and Arnold doesn't. And until "Life Goes On" can do better than that, its contribution to a deeper understanding of the retarded, like that of "L.A. Law," will remain limited at best.

Alan Pell Crawford has written for The Nation, Vogue, and National Review.