Before reading this review: Over the past few years there have
been a number of cases brought before the courts in relation to historical
cases of sexual assault. As a result, a number of well known 'stars' of
television have been tried and in many cases were found guilty and received
prison sentences. Whilst Television Heaven is aware that some readers may find
it offensive that these people still appear on this website we would like to
make it clear that no offence is intended. However, to ignore this particular
series and its place in television history would be to rewrite television
history itself. This particular review was written in September 2001, before
any allegations were brought against Bill Cosby, who was found guilty of three
counts of aggravated indecent assault in April 2018, and sentenced to three to
ten years in prison on 25 September 2018. Therefore the views of the writer,
who has since sadly passed away, should be regarded not as a contemporary
piece, but as seen at the time of writing.
In 1984, the American situation comedy was
considered dead and tired by critics and viewers alike. But that same year, The Cosby Show proved the naysayers
wrong. It not only single handedly revived the genre, it turned NBC from a
cellar-dwelling network into the prime-time leader, and made Bill Cosby the
biggest star on the planet for a time.
All this attention focused on a comedy about
an upscale African-American family living in New York City. And viewers loved
it. Cosby gained fame in the late 1960's as the first black actor to star in a
US dramatic series--I Spy. After it
went off the air, the comic's success with series TV was spotty at best. A
self-titled sitcom lasted for only two seasons; two variety shows came and went
quickly in the 1970's, but his success in concerts and on television
commercials kept the Cos in the public eye. And then fate intervened. One
night, NBC's Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff was unable to sleep and
turned on his network's late-night programme The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As it happened, Cosby was one
of the show's guests, and went into his monologue. As Tartikoff remembered it,
"I notice that Cosby had completely reworked his act...he was talking
about being an adult, the father of adolescent children, the husband of a woman
he met twenty years ago but is still getting to know." The next day, Tartikoff
called Cosby's agent and said the network was interested in a show around the
comic "but only...if it's rooted in Bill Cosby's real life."
Former ABC network executives Tom Werner and
Marcy Carsey were tapped to create the show. But since they had a contract with
ABC, the two had to take the idea to that network first--and ABC's
Entertainment chief, Lew Erlicht turned it down, allowing Werner and Carsey to
bring the show back to NBC. (About three years later, a story made the rounds
in Hollywood: When Erlicht was asked for a handout by a homeless man, he
replied "Listen, don't give me YOUR sad story. I'm the guy who passed on
The Cosby Show.) Cosby wanted his character to be a chauffeur and his wife to
be a maid--but Cosby's real-life wife eventually talked him into playing an
obstetrician. So Cliff Huxtable became a doctor; wife Clair Huxtable (Phylicia
Rashad) was a successful lawyer. A nationwide search went out for the children
to be part of the Huxtable clan. Four virtually unknown kids were hired to play
teenager Denise, only son Theo, adolescent Vanessa and youngest daughter Rudy.
(A college-age daughter, Sondra, was added soon after the show's premiere on
September 20th, 1984.)
"Cosby" shocked the industry by
beating the once-formidable Magnum P. I
in the ratings right from the start. By the spring of 1985, "Cosby"
was American television's top-rated series, propelling NBC's Thursday night
schedule--which at the time included
Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill
Street Blues--to high ratings. The
Cosby Show represented a break with black sitcom tradition. Unlike 'Julia'
and 'What's Happening', "Cosby" had a two-parent family--no single
mom left alone to raise the kids. And unlike Good Times and The
Jeffersons, the show was not a series of one-liners or put-downs. Cosby and
his writers simply took small moments from family life and made them the focus.
The Huxtable kids were real--no catch-phrases came from their lips. Plus, Cliff
and Clare Huxtable were credible parents. If their kids did wrong, they were
not afraid to punish them. And there was great chemistry between Cosby and
Rashad, a reminder to viewers that you CAN be sexy when you're past 40.
But there was debate as to whether the
Huxtable clan was a credible African-American family. Some thought they were a
bit too rich, a little too cultured, not so "streetwise." (A study by
two University of Massachusetts professors--funded in part by Cosby
himself--claimed the affluence of the fictional Huxtables made Americans less
sensitive of the plight of inner-city blacks.) On the flip side, black middle
and upper-class families were making strides in the 1980's. "Cosby"
reflected their growing economic power. Such was Cosby's clout that in 1987,
Lisa Bonet--who played Denise--was spun off into her own series about life at a
fictional black college, A Different
World. (It became it hit because it followed its parent on Thursday
nights.) But Bonet became pregnant in real life and returned to
"Cosby" a year later, as a married, expectant woman. 'Different World'
without Bonet ran until 1993.
Eventually, "Cosby" began to fall
in the ratings; its general appeal was losing ground to such harder-edged
domestic comedies as Roseanne, Married With Children and the animated The Simpsons (which started beating
"Cosby" in the ratings after the two went head-to-head in 1990). On
April 30th, 1992, "Cosby" aired its final episode with Theo
graduating from college and Cliff and Clare looking forward to a home nearly
devoid of children. But that was also the night the city of Los Angeles broke
out in riots, after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of
black motorist Rodney King. NBC's Los Angeles station broke away from the riots
to air the final "Cosby"; Cosby himself taped a plea for the end of
the programme, urging viewers to "pray for a better tomorrow, which starts
The Cosby Show was one of the last comedies
on network television that the entire family could watch--and enjoy. And it
regularly snagged more than 50-percent of the available US television audience,
before cable became a reality in most homes.
Published on December 5th, 2018. Review: Mike Spadoni (September 2001).