I love The Cosby Show for many reasons. Like many admirers of the show, I admire the combination of the positive depictions of African-Americans and the high quality of the comedic elements that became the cultural phenomenon that resonates to this day. Still, even with all the acclaim, I don’t think The Cosby Show gets the props that is should from either social or pop culture critics. For instance, even though Cosby was lauded for the “positivity” his show put on display for America, very rarely is the show’s conscious and ongoing depiction of African-American culture-artistic, political and social-acknowledged. And, even more frustratingly, as a lover of television, I marvel at how the sheer quality of The Cosby Show is often undervalued. It’s as if, because it was an important political artifact and is viewed as one of those watershed moments when America’s view on race evolved, no one really talks about how damn funny it was. Symptomatic of The Cosby Show‘s underestimation is the dismissal of the later years. Most conversations about the show seem to take for granted that it “jumped the shark” during the later years, specifically, when Olivia joined the cast.
For one thing, I believe that the post-Olivia years provide a fascinating example of how a long running series can evolve and adapt to the bane of any show that features child actors. I think the years’ long story arcs of Sondra, Denise and Vanessa are a testament to how strongly the characters were drawn in the early years, I argue that Theo Huxtable is the best depiction of, not only a black teenager, but any teen character on a television show and, the more I pay attention, the more I appreciate the metacommentary of the barely veiled tension between Rudy and Olivia as the latter began to upstage the former’s role as “the cute one.”
The later years are also necessary viewing for anyone who remains vested in the ongoing conversation of how, “black” The Cosby Show was. One of the most common critiques of the show was that, during the turmoil of the Reagan Years, The Cosby Show presented an unrealistic picture of black prosperity and, more damning, a “safe” image for white America. Cosby and co.’s response to the charge was embodied in the famous season three episode, “Vanessa’s Rich” when Clair and Cliff inform the audience through Vanessa that the Huxtables aren’t rich because, “rich people’s money works for them, and we work for our money.” However, I would submit that the entire character of Cousin Pam was created from the impetus of demonstrating the connection of the Huxtable clan to the black folks that many said they ignored. For these reasons and more, I love The Cosby Show but I am continually studying and appreciating the Huxtables…in Autumn.