Towards the end of “Period of Adjustment,” the sixth season episode of The Cosby Show that introduces Cousin Pam, one of her friends “from the ‘hood,” Lance stands in the Huxtable living room asks for some cranapple juice because, as he wryly observes, “this looks like a house that would have some cranapple juice.” Within the context of the show’s history, it is a moment fraught with social and class implication and directly addresses a theme that haunted the program throughout its history. I see the cranapple juice ss nothing less than a signifier representing a certain set of critiques that dogged The Cosby Show throughout its existence. For Lance, cranapple juice is something you see on television on commercials and shows, not a drink that you can get in real life. And for Lance-and many viewers-The Huxtables’ life seemed just as unrealistic as the cranapple juice.
Since the beginning, The Cosby Show had always been criticized in some circles for what some saw as an unrealistic depiction of a black family. Ironically, most of the loudest voices putting forth this critique were African-American. To put it bluntly, some black folks didn’t think the Huxtable lived like real black folks because they had too much money. The concept of a black pediatrician and a black lawyer was just too much for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. Personally, I trace the furor to the infamous second season episode, “The Auction,” when Clair pays $10,ooo for a painting. Even though the script went to great pains to show that the painting was purchased for sentimental reasons and the follow-up episode, “Vanessa’s Rich,” tried to defuse the brouhaha, I don’t think the Huxtables ever really recovered from what many viewed as the proof of their extravagance.
And, importantly, the show had only really addressed the critique, until this point, through the faceless girls who had jumped Vanessa in the aforementioned episode. After that, the issue of the Huxtables class status was never addressed again. The introduction of Cousin Pam, one of Clair’s relatives who apparently lived in the other part of Brooklyn, introduced a different dynamic, however. Unlike Vanessa’s nameless assailants, Pam was a new cast member who brought along a whole gaggle of recurring characters. And Pam’s crew all served as voices to interrogate the different types of class experiences that black people have on an ongoing basis.
I thought it was a brilliant move on the part of Cosby and the other creators and, the inclusion of Cousin Pam, led to a series of storylines that earlier seasons couldn’t have explored. Rather than set up that same ol’ tired, “bourgie black folks are stiff and rigid and poor black folks sho’ can get down!” dichotomy, Cousin Pam, literally, personified the fact that we are all one family regardless of what it says on our W4 and, as evidenced by Pam’s girl Charmaine’s migration from “the ‘hood” to the ivory towers of A Different World’s Hillman College, class is not an impenetrable barrier. Whether the family grappled with Pam’s boyfriends incidence on unprotected sex, the incidence of Pam serving as protector as Rudy went to see a rapper in a seedy club, or Cliff and Clair discussing how they’re going to pay for Pam to go to college, the inclusion of Cousin Pam completely dissembled any notion that the Huxtables were untouchable and weren’t “real.”
Moments after Lance asks about the cranapple juice, Cliff and Clair come in from a date. After they are introduced, Cliff asks Cousin Pam to offer her friends a snack and tells her that he’s pretty sure they have some cranapple juice. It’s a funny moment and, certainly, after six years, it’s a moment when the writers are playfully addressing the issue of socioeconomics and the Huxtables. What I think is more important than the fact that, while the Huxtables indeed have cranapple juice, Cosby & co. let you know that the juice is for everyone.