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Social Studies

Family Affair

By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/31/2005

I got around to picking up the new box set of The Cosby Show’s first season from 1984-’85. Even though, between the first run and syndication, I’ve seen all the episodes dozens of times, I was really looking forward to getting it, because there’s a certain rhythm to watching them all together. Thinking about first-season plots like Rudy’s goldfish dying or Theo’s bad report card reminds me of something music producer Joel Dorn said about Donny Hathaway’s debut album, Everything Is Everything: “It has a certain innocence to it. Afterwards, he was a genius, but right then, he was just another guy tryin’.” That’s what I feel about the first season of The Cosby Show. Before it became a sociological/racial/political/cultural landmark, The Cosby Show was just a group of folks tryin’.

I’ve always thought it was a shame that people only discuss The Cosby Show in terms of its enormous cultural impact, because this was a pretty solidly built piece of television. Obviously, Bill Cosby is a magnificent performer, and his depiction of Cliff Huxtable is understandably legendary, but the rest of the cast members never got their due as actors. As Cliff’s wife, Clair, Phylicia Rashad was much more than just an audience for Cosby’s jokes. She was smart, sexy, and had quite a bit of comedic timing herself, evident in the inaugural season. For instance, upon hearing how much Theo’s expensive Gordon Gartrelle shirt is, she gives an almost Lucille Ball-esque double take.

Likewise, the children also served as much more than foils for Cosby’s shenanigans. After creepy, miniature-adult child actors Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, Keshia Knight Pulliam’s Rudy was a breath of fresh air, a child actor who acted like . . . a real child. While Tempest Bledsoe’s Vanessa really came into her own in later seasons, there’s a certain charm about her first-season tattletale persona. Likewise, Lisa Bonet’s Denise really solidified in the second season but, to paraphrase TV critic Donald Bogle from his 2001 book Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, there is something innately fascinating about Denise’s role as a black valley girl. Finally, Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Theo is one of the most criminally underrated comedic roles in TV history, and some of the truly golden Theo moments are in the first season. The aforementioned Gordon Gartrelle? Theo trying to explain his report card to his father? Please. And Theo hiding his earring from his father as they both do an exaggerated waltz on Theo’s bed is still one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in my life. Yes, it was called The Cosby Show, but this was clearly a team effort, and, judging it as purely an ensemble piece, I would put the first season up against the first seasons of Seinfeld, Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, or pretty much any classic sitcom.

But, you can’t look at The Cosby Show in just those terms, can you? The “black thing” is always right there. Well, for my money, there has never been a more textured and comprehensive examination of black life on network television than The Cosby Show, and this is evident even in the first season. Yeah, it’s easy to point at the whole black doctor and black lawyer thing, but there’s commentary and subversion of the accepted view of the black experience throughout. At a time when the myth of the Absentee Black Father was becoming accepted fact in Reagan-era America, you got the introduction of Cliff’s father in “Independence Day,” which pointedly presents three generations of black men. You got the introduction of legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne to a brand-new audience. You got the frank discussion of the value of a historically black college’s education vs. a white college’s. Hell, you got a depiction of a historically black college. In 1984-’85, besides all the black art, you got the controversial Keith Haring anti-apartheid poster on Theo’s wall at a time when our government was still weighing the options about what to do with South Africa. And in one of my favorite sequences of all time, you got modern-dance icon Judith Jamison jitterbugging alongside Denise’s friends break dancing, showing respect to the then-nascent art form of hip-hop. The show has often received criticism from some black folks that it wasn’t “black enough.” But in just the first season, in terms of cultural, political, and aesthetic representation, I can’t think of any show that was, for lack of a better term, blacker.

Ultimately, The Cosby Show can stand both cultural and artistic criticism, and though later seasons were arguably stronger, the first season builds the foundation and sets the tone for what is to come. Regardless, I’m really happy that it’s all together in one package. Plus, I can now watch Theo and Cliff do the Dance of the Earring any time I want.

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