The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show

1984 - United States

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. Iin 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 today." 

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).

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