How The Cosby Show spoke to race and class in ’80s America

How The Cosby Show spoke to race and class in ’80s America

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Few sitcoms can lay claim to as many legacies as The Cosby Show. It was responsible for reversing the flagging viewership of NBC, which at the time was mired in a distant third place under Brandon Tartikoff’s leadership. It also reinvigorated the sitcom during a time when action shows like The A-Team owned the airwaves. Only The Jeffersons and Kate & Allie were among Nielsen’s Top 20 when Cosby premièred in 1984, but by the end of its second season, sitcoms composed half of the Top 10. The show’s success made it a model for sitcoms developed around the personalities and viewpoints of stand-up comedians, a process that grew to define the genre. But of all its legacies, the one most noted when discussing The Cosby Show is its depictions of race and class. Nothing like it had been seen before on television, and nothing has had its level of impact since.

Former ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner were tapped to develop a sitcom around Bill Cosby after Tartikoff was impressed by Cosby’s stand-up appearance on The Tonight Show.  The two producers and Cosby kicked around ideas and took their original pitch—about a limousine-driving father, a stay-at-home mom, and their children—to ABC, which rejected it. NBC and Tartikoff made room for it, even as there were reservations about Cosby’s viability as a television star, and it was given an initial six-episode order. But before the pilot was shot, Cosby returned to Carsey and Werner with a different idea: His character would be a doctor instead, and the show would be about an upper-class black family rather than a blue-collar one. That decision proved invaluable to the show’s cultural relevance, and has made it a sandbox for pop-culture sociologists.

In its pilot, Cliff Huxtable (Cosby) is already a doctor, but his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) still appears to be a stay-at-home mom. As Cosby and his team continued tweaking the show’s elements, they became more aggressive in their efforts to present a singular vision of upwardly mobile African-American life. Clair became a successful attorney. The Huxtable clan grew from six members to seven when a new eldest daughter, Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf), returned from college, an idea born of Cosby’s desire to show the family having successfully shepherded a child to a higher education. The producers hired Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a noted psychiatrist whose work focuses on the nuances of raising black children, to act as a consultant and give notes on scripts. The writing took shape around these new ideas, and the series found many of its episodes playing with ideas of how being raised by two successful, moneyed parents shaped the children, for better and for worse.

But none of this would matter if The Cosby Show wasn’t funny. Given that the show was derided for being overly tame and conventional when it was still on the air, it’s admirable that it still holds up as comedy, in spite of how coarse sitcoms have become since then. That said, the most significant episodes of The Cosby Show aren’t necessarily the best or funniest. Because the show’s novel portrayal of a black family is so important to what it was able to accomplish, the episodes that are the most representative of its run are those that incorporate those elements, even as there were many very funny episodes that could have just as easily been shot with a white cast. These 10 episodes rely on the show’s treatment of race and class and are equally good examples of how Cosby excelled at building a sitcom around his stand-up persona.

“A Shirt Story” (season one, episode five): One of the show’s central conflicts was how Cliff and Clair struggled to give their children plenty, while denying them everything. The Huxtables were wealthy, but Cliff and Clair avoided spoiling their children out of principle. They didn’t want to give the kids a sense of entitlement; they wanted to be examples of the benefits that come with hard work, sacrifice, and a degree. In “A Shirt Story,” the couple’s only son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), goes to buy a new shirt for an upcoming date, only to bring home a designer button-up crafted from the finest yield-sign yellow silk. Cliff is only interested in the price, and when he hears it—$95—he demands the shirt’s return. “I don’t have a $95 shirt, and I have a job,” Cliff says. “Don’t you want something better for your son?” Theo quips. Sister Denise (Lisa Bonet) insists she can make Theo a shirt just as good as the Gordon Gartrelle shirt, and unsurprisingly comes up short. That there is now an urban clothing line named after Gartrelle (who was one of the show’s producers) speaks to the episode’s resonance.

“Happy Anniversary” (season two, episode three):
The first season of The Cosby Show established it as a strong presence, but it wasn’t until the second season that its ratings stranglehold began, and “Happy Anniversary” can take much of the credit for this. It centers on the family’s celebration of the 49th wedding anniversary of Cliff’s parents, and it demonstrated for viewers just getting onboard that when the Huxtables have problems, they are of the “What extravagant anniversary gift is best for my parents?” variety. The family settles on bestowing a European cruise, but it also stages a lip-synch performance of Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is The Right Time,” which established Cliff’s jazz and blues obsession as one of his bourgeois bona fides and made a star out of Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy and became the youngest actress ever nominated for an Emmy at age 6.

“Theo’s Holiday” (season two, episode 22): The theme of how to raise a child with a healthy relationship with money in a wealthy environment was most often filtered through Theo, who never stopped asking his parents for expensive clothes and sports cars, no matter how often he was turned down. In “Theo’s Holiday,” his lack of financial consciousness catches up with him when Cliff and Clair find out he has outstanding loans to all his sisters and no way to pay them back. Theo insists that he’ll be able to survive just fine as an adult, since he’ll be a highly paid model and won’t have to worry about money any more than he has to as a child of wealthy parents. To teach him a lesson in money management, the Huxtables turn the house into a fully immersive simulation of adult life and the bills that come with it. This episode displays another quirk about the Huxtables: They seemed to have an unbelievable amount of free time.

“Vanessa’s Rich” (season three, episode eight): The next Huxtable child to get a lesson in the realities of class was Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), who found herself socially outcast for reasons she would have never anticipated. When she invites a pair of popular girls from the pep squad to the house, she casually mentions that an original painting that hangs in the family’s living room set her parents back $11,000. Following a full tour of the house, rumors of her family’s status spread, and Vanessa ends up in her first school fight after she’s called a stuck-up rich girl in front of her classmates. The second-best reaction to the incident comes from Theo, who is baffled as to why being called rich would offend Vanessa so much—it would boost his social status, not hurt it. But the best reaction comes from Cliff when he says, “Let me get something straight: Your mother and I are rich. You have nothing.”

“Hillman” (season three, episode 25):
Encouraging black kids to go to college was one of Cosby’s greatest passions, and that message saturated the show throughout its run. Beyond merely demonstrating how Cliff and Clair’s advanced education was instrumental to their class mobility, Cosby practically turned the show into a commercial for historically black universities. In spite of becoming known for wearing busily patterned sweaters, Cliff just as often wore sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of black colleges such as Wilberforce and Fisk. Cliff and Clair were college sweethearts at Hillman College, the show’s fictional historically black college, which took the focus in this episode, the backdoor pilot for Bonet’s Hillman-set spinoff A Different World. It isn’t the funniest episode in the show’s run, but it further cemented the show’s credibility as a portrayal of a family like the Huxtables.

“Call Of The Wild” (season four, episode one):
The genius of “Call Of The Wild” lies not only in the story (which is fantastic) but in its timing. When viewers had last seen Cliff and Clair, they were visiting Denise at Hillman, watching their dream of well-educated children come to life. In the next season’s première, the couple is on an even higher cloud, as they wait to present gifts to Sondra and her new husband Elvin (Geoffrey Owens), as Sondra prepares for law school and Elvin for med school. But Cliff and Clair’s dream of having a daughter and son-in-law formed in their own image is shattered when the couple announces that they’re not going to school after all. They’re opening a wilderness store in Brooklyn. Suffice it to say, the parents don’t take the news well, but they learn that laying out a path for your children doesn’t obligate them to follow it.

“Bookworm” (season four, episode 14): Later this season, not only did Cliff and Clair come to grips with Sondra and Elvin’s decision, but the latter couple became an unwitting vessel for the Huxtable standard. Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy go to spend the night at Sondra and Elvin’s ratty fifth-floor walkup apartment and find out firsthand what the world has in store for newlyweds who aspire to own wilderness stores. The story isn’t quite framed that way—it’s played for laughs as the spoiled Huxtable scions see how the other half lives—but given the show’s themes, the subtext is unavoidable, if not necessarily intended. This episode also features a hilarious B-story and guest appearances from then-unknown actresses Angela Bassett and S. Epatha Merkerson.

“Denise: The Saga Continues” (season six, episode one): The Cosby Show had a run of good luck in that the personal lives of its stars didn’t do anything to derail the show when it was at its hottest. But all streaks come to an end, and Bonet became a problem child that would plague her on-screen father for most of the show’s run. Denise was written out of A Different World after its first season and wasn’t a regular for two seasons of Cosby following Bonet’s pregnancy and an appearance in the lascivious Mickey Rourke vehicle Angel Heart, which reportedly annoyed Cosby. The prodigal daughter returned for the season-six première, which solidified Cosby season premières as episodes in which one of the children would drop a bombshell. In “Denise: The Saga Continues,” Denise returns to Brooklyn from a long stay in Africa, and introduces her parents to the husband and stepdaughter she secretly acquired while she was away. Bonet’s earth-mother persona was integrated into the character, and became a riff on what rich-kid rebellion might look like for a wealthy black family.

“Period Of Adjustment” (season seven, episode four):
By the seventh season, the show had mostly burned through the themes of normalizing well-off children. So just as long-running family sitcoms write in a quippy new moppet after the original one gets too old (which Cosby also did by hiring Raven-Symone), the Cosby writers kept the class conversation going by adding Pam (Erika Alexander), a cousin who comes to live with the Huxtables after her single mother moves to California. Pam became the conduit for many of the show’s “very special episodes,” as she struggled to reconcile her round-the-way-girl identity with her tony new surroundings. The character never quite came together, but Pam was able to rise above Cousin Oliver status, if only because she proved her worth by bringing along her friends Lance and Charmaine (Allen Payne and Karen Malina White), two of the show’s most reliably funny recurring faces.

“With This Ring?” (season eight, episode one):
The show’s final season première went back to the Huxtable Girls Gone Relatively Wild well, this time with an 18-year-old Vanessa casually announcing that she was engaged to a pushing-30 maintenance man (William Thomas Jr.) and had been for six months. (It’s worth noting that the maintenance man’s name—Dabnis Brickey—is among the best in the history of the television medium.) Vanessa explains that she waited to tell her parents the news until they were more “stable,” having dealt with so much havoc wreaked by her elder siblings. But in spite of the acknowledgement that this was the type of episode the audience had seen before, it also reminds the viewer of why. Cosby and Rashad always crackled in their scenes together, but never more than when Cliff and Clair were bonded in parental disappointment, and were delivered yet another reminder that parenting isn’t a process that guarantees results, even when it’s done well.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Breaking With Tradition” (season one, episode six); “Bonjour, Sondra” (season one, episode 10); “Denise Drives” (season two, episode eight); “The Auction” (season two, episode 13); “I Know That You Know” (season three, episode 21); “Theogate” (season four, episode two); “Shakespeare” (season four, episode five); “Theo’s Gift” (season six, episode five); “Isn’t It Romantic?” (season six, episode 20); “Bird In The Hand” (season seven, episode two)

Availability: All eight seasons are available for streaming with a Hulu Plus membership, as well as on DVD.

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