Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“The Infantry Has Landed (And They’ve Fallen Off The Roof)” (The Cosby Show, season 7, episode 9; originally aired 11/8/1990)
In which Rudy becomes a woman, but doesn’t attract sharks in the process…
Meredith Blake: As a kid weaned on the classic family sitcoms of the ’80s, I always felt a special kinship with Rudy Huxtable, the youngest of the five kids on The Cosby Show. Although I was the middle child in my family, Rudy and I were the exact same age, a detail which outweighed any other consideration—like the fact that she was black, and I was white, or that she lived in Brooklyn Heights, and I lived in a Pennsylvania steel town. Rudy was me, dammit!
So naturally, “The Infantry Has Landed,” the late-era Cosby Show episode in which the youngest Huxtable offspring gets her period, left a dramatic impression on me. Rudy and I used to have so much in common, but now she was diving headlong into puberty, while my body stubbornly refused to budge. It’s not that I even wanted to experience what she was going through: Like most adolescent girls, the prospect of going through puberty filled me with a mixture of terror and impatience. I wished it would hurry up and happen already—or not at all. The agony was in the waiting—not to mention having to watch anything on television related to the subject of menstruation, especially if my parents were in the room at the same time.
Given the mortification and betrayal I felt when “The Infantry Has Landed” aired back in 1990, I’m surprised by how breezy, lighthearted, and wholly enjoyable an episode it actually is. It steers well clear of all the “very special episode” clichés, instead revealing Rudy’s big change in the most matter-of-fact way possible. As Denise and Vanessa unload groceries in the kitchen, Clair wanders in and delivers the news: Rudy got her period, and she’s on her way home from school. Maybe it’s because Sally Draper’s entrée into womanhood is so fresh on my mind, but I was surprised by the choice to tell the story from this perspective. (In fact, I first watched this episode on YouTube, then went back to watch it on Hulu to make sure I hadn’t missed a scene.) The more conventional choice would have been to show Rudy at school, clutching her stomach in pain, then running off to the bathroom.
But the counterintuitive approach makes sense, because one of the central themes of this episode is the disparity between Rudy, who’s deeply ambivalent about her changing body, and the rest of the Huxtable women, who are thrilled she’s finally joined them “in the ranks of womanhood.” They’re also eager for Rudy to take part in the Huxtable family tradition of “Woman’s Day,” a chance to play hooky and go on a fun excursion of her choice anywhere in the city. It’s a nice idea, in theory: Why shouldn’t Rudy feel special, rather than embarrassed, ashamed, or scared?
However, when Rudy does finally get home, it’s obvious she wants to crawl into a hole and die—or, failing that, hide out in her room for the next five to seven years. In spite of Clair’s admirable intentions, Rudy doesn’t want her family fawning over her, pinching her cheeks, and gushing about how she’s “become a woman.” That’s one thing this episode captures so well: the desire to be invisible—at least to your family—until you’ve safely passed through adolescence.
Around her friends, though, Rudy is different. “The Infantry Has Landed” does a great job at conveying the mixed feelings that arrive with puberty. She delights in the attention that, as a girl who’s crossed the Rubicon into womanhood, she receives from her friends. “Rudy, I see hips,” says one of them. “Don’t worry, you’ll get yours,” Rudy, the wise veteran, assures her. Around them, she feels sophisticated; around her family, she still feels like a kid.
The girls then proceed to do exactly the thing Clair fears they will do, swapping apocryphal tales about period-related emergencies. Their stories are slightly more outlandish than the things I heard as a tween—or read about in YM Magazine’s infamous “Say Anything” column—but their presence in this episode is a reminder of how mystifying and scary adolescence can be. Given how squeamish our culture still is when it comes to menstruation, this is a smart way for The Cosby Show to approach the subject matter—by tackling the discomfort, misinformation, and hyperbole head-on, and making it all seem a bit ridiculous. No, you won’t die, or get attacked by sharks, or be asked to leave the circus because you have your period. Most likely, you’ll just feel a little crappy for a day or two.
Clair’s cool-headed takedown of Theo’s friend Danny serves the same purpose. He makes the hardly unique argument that “between premenstrual syndrome, postmenstrual syndrome, and their visit from Aunt Flo,” women are crazy all month long. She counters that women are entitled to whatever emotions they happen to be experiencing, and to chalk their feelings up to “hormones” is a way of invalidating them. She caps off the conversation with the line of the episode: “These people should be very happy when women get visits from their aunts, because if they didn’t, there would be no uncles.” It’s little wonder Theo tries so hard to extricate Danny from what he knows will be a losing battle.
Although Rudy initially resists the whole Woman’s Day idea, she finally agrees to participate. In the closing minutes of the episode, mother and daughter curl up on the couch, root-beer floats and potato chips at the ready, to watch Gone With The Wind. Finally, Rudy opens up about her mixed feelings. She resents the idea that what she’s going through is special only because she’s the last one to experience it, and what’s more, she doesn’t see why she should celebrate “the most humiliating day of my life.” Clair is sympathetic to her daughter’s emotions—“That’s why they call it ‘the curse,’” she says—but then she pulls that classic parental move of claiming that when she was her age, it was even worse. (“Pads the size of mattresses” are the new “walking 10 miles through the snow to school.”) In this case, however, the tactic works. Rudy happily accepts the idea that while she won’t always be thrilled to have gotten her period, there will be some days when it will all seem worthwhile.
Revisiting “The Infantry Has Landed” for the first time in close to 20 years, I’m genuinely impressed by it. It could have easily been humorless or squeamish or touchy-feely, but instead, it’s sensitive, insightful, funny, and maybe even a little brave. Even though half the population will go through the same thing as Rudy, it’s still a weirdly taboo subject, and if it comes up at all in pop culture, it tends to be played for gross-out laughs. If only more families were like the Huxtables.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: In Warren Littlefield’s new book about his time at NBC during the ’80s and ’90s, he tells a story about watching the pilot episode of The Cosby Show. There’s a scene where Cliff confronts Theo about his bad grades, and Theo says he might not be on the path to a high-paying professional career like his parents’, but they should still love him “for who I am.” Littlefield writes that “the audience, led by the young people, really applauded Theo for standing up to his father. They were on his side.” Then Cliff says, “Theo, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re going to study because I said so. I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” Littlefield writes that the same audience that had just joined in on the rote applause of Theo’s “I gotta be me” line went crazy applauding: “It was as if they were saying, ‘God Bless you, Bill Cosby, for taking back your role as a parent and telling these spoiled children to study… The younger members appreciated Theo’s speech, but then when Bill said, ‘I can take you out,’ everyone in the audience was united; the place went nuts. At that moment, it felt like breakthrough television.”
I think he’s right about that. The Cosby Show was zeitgeist television in the ’80s. (I never missed an episode for the first couple of seasons, but I admit to drifting away from it after that.) This was a time when a lot of people wanted a president who functioned as a national foxy grandpa, and spoke as if he could roll back the ’60s and ’70s through the power of good sense and the occasional tolerant, knowing chuckle. The Cosby Show brought back the television father as an authority figure who anchored his family, who was usually right, and who didn’t negotiate or cut deals with his kids, after years of gently fumbling, basically ignorable father figures like Howard Cunningham on Happy Days. I don’t know who besides Cosby—who’d spent so much of his career, up to that point, connecting directly with children, and acting out stories about his own childhood—could have done that so well without coming across as a tight-assed drag. Part of what’s interesting about this episode is the way the subject matter relegates the dad to the sidelines: Even he has to admit he has nothing to contribute to helping Rudy get through this unscathed. (And he’s a doctor!) It made me realize that I can’t think of a comparable “rite of manhood” that arises naturally out of the body’s development and gives men the chance to come together and smooth the passage to adulthood for a confused, scared new recruit. Maybe somebody can straighten me out on this, but the best I can come up with is one of those scenes you sometimes find in Russian fiction or really skanky Westerns, where Dad takes Junior to the whorehouse on his birthday. But maybe that’s a common thing, and my Dad just got me socks instead because he’s a cheap bastard.
Ryan McGee: I just finished Littlefield’s book as well, and I remember that moment from the pilot distinctly. I don’t remember anything else from television that year, but I do recall that seismic moment in the pilot, since it was lifted directly from Cosby’s stand-up. Bill Cosby: Himself was a staple in our home, the one thing my parents and I could watch together and enjoy on an equal level. I didn’t understand everything about that comedy special, but I do remember doing the dentist routine from it verbatim at my school’s talent show. So when The Cosby Show debuted, my family tuned in every week for the majority of its run.
I was glad Meredith selected this show for this week’s roundtable—but also a bit terrified. Like her, I wondered how the show might play now vs. how it played at the time. My personal verdict? Wonderfully, with the heft of the episode coming not from Keshia Knight Pulliam, but Phylicia Rashad, whose performance still stands as one of the great matriarchs of television history. The regal way she conducts herself still holds up today, especially the way she downshifts from her initial plans for Woman’s Day toward the way Rudy’s actions steer here. There are no histrionics, there are no screaming matches, there are no instances in which the predetermined wishes of the mother smother the needs of the daughter. Clair simply adapts to the circumstances and provides a safe space for Rudy to communicate her fears and feelings. Given how many current comedies depend upon ratcheting up the Misunderstanding Meter to provide conflict, it’s refreshing to see how a simple, honest approach can still yield satisfying results and plenty of laughs along the way.
Todd VanDerWerff: The topic of a girl’s first period is one television has barely dealt with, and hasn’t dealt with that well when it’s tried. When I thought of examples of this type of storyline—outside of Mad Men—the best two I could think of were Dan and Darlene dealing with her onset of puberty on Roseanne, and Hank being forced to take Connie tampon-shopping on an especially awkward and moving King Of The Hill. “The Infantry Has Landed”—which I don’t think I’d ever seen before this project—doesn’t reach the level of those two shows, but it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot, either. And considering the show’s writers seemed to think the word “beets” was inherently hilarious, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
This episode does the thing that first made The Cosby Show so revolutionary, then eventually grew more and more irritating as the show went on: The series is essentially plotless. Oh, sure, there will be a story or two, but they’re more like extremely slow-moving comic sketches, a chance for Bill Cosby and the talented cast to play off of each other. Cosby’s mugging and antics became one of the reasons the show was so popular, so it’s easy to see why the series went in this direction, and when the series debuted, that lack of structure felt downright revolutionary in a sitcom world full of tired clichés. But there are only so many times you can watch, say, a scene where Cliff and Olivia deal with her wish not to go to bed (a scene that has nothing to do with anything in this episode) before you’re hoping something will take over and drag everything back on track.
In that respect, I almost wanted more from Clair and Rudy’s storyline, particularly the latter half of that equation. I liked the scene where Rudy’s friends fill her full of misinformation, and I liked the sense that she was the worldly one now, at least to her friends, as Meredith pointed out. But the episode spends so much time educating that it forgets to remind us of the experience the one being educated is having. The things Clair is saying are definitely valuable, but I felt like Rudy got lost in the shuffle, particularly in the final act, when Cliff and Olivia had their scene, then Cliff and Theo had their scene, and only then did the episode remember to get back to its raison d’être.
Yet maybe there’s no way to effectively depict this sort of story without dealing with the reactions of adults around the girl transitioning to womanhood, who all necessarily read their own thoughts and expectations into what’s happening. One day, you’re a kid, and the next day, you’re on the way toward adulthood. It’s such a clear, sharp demarcation that I’m amazed there aren’t more solid TV representations of it, even if it doesn’t immediately suggest a story arc.
Noel Murray: Like Phil, I stopped watching The Cosby Show long before this episode aired, not just because the show’s creative formula had begun to lose its pop by the seventh season, but because The Simpsons was on. (I know exactly what I was watching on TV on November 8th, 1990: It was “Dancin’ Homer,” which I watched with my college roommates.) So I may have been too distracted by revisiting a show I loved as a teenager to register much of what it was saying about being a teenager. “The Infantry Has Landed” certainly highlights a lot of what I liked about The Cosby Show when it debuted: the sweet, half-improvised interactions between Cosby and young children; the sense that the show’s stories are drawn from real life and real memories; and the representation of upper-middle-class African-American life in a culturally vibrant New York City. This episode also features some of what drove me away from the show: the interminable comic setpieces, like Theo and Cliff’s psych-class roundelay and Clair’s telling-off of Danny; the introduction of new cute kids for Cosby to interact with; and a sometimes-awkward straining for relevance.
That said, given the subject matter, I was surprised by how relaxed and non-preachy “The Infantry Has Landed” is, outside of Claire’s big rant at Danny. The whole idea here is to emphasize what’s natural and wondrous about this particular rite of passage, and I agree that having Rudy’s feelings be so complicated (and malleable, depending on whom she’s with) is a nice touch. I also appreciated that this episode doesn’t neglect how “becoming a woman” relates to sex. Claire’s line about how there will be some months where Rudy will be very happy to have gotten her period is a clever wink to older viewers, and there’s even some subtext to all the talk about how blood attracts sharks and such. “You’re upsetting the animals” is the key line in the legend of the menstruating girl who was kicked out of the circus. But it’s not just Rudy’s period that’s doing that; it’s her growing hips as well.
Donna Bowman: Meredith, it’s interesting that you chose an episode from The Cosby Show’s dotage to encapsulate the theme of adolescence. In its next-to-last season, the patriarch and matriarch have moved on to grandparenthood, with Denise’s daughter Olivia taking on the role of cutie-patootie that Rudy once occupied. That interlude with preschool-age Olivia trying to delay bedtime by asking for water and telling her grandpa a story reminds me of the Andy and Barney conversations that filled out the running time of many an episode of The Andy Griffith Show: “That’s what the audience loves, so we’ll stop everything and give it to ’em.” But Olivia’s presence highlights the terrifying challenge of family-based television shows. The kids grow up. What are you going to do? And just listen to some of us talk about how we stopped watching the show before this season aired. We grew up, too. And we grew out of this show, leaving it behind to go on without us like kids leaving the nest.
For all the adoration lavished on little Rudy in the show’s early years, though, the reason The Cosby Show succeeded was the far less ephemeral presence of Cliff and Clair. Cosby might seem to be trading on his stand-up persona, but the specificity of this character, and his ability to be both monumentally charismatic and completely laid-back, points to the way he approaches the show through the lens of an actor rather than that of a comedian. The way he cracks up Clair rings so true because Cosby is cracking up Rashad, and that mutual amusement on which the relationship was built never got lost, even this late in the game. We may be startled at Denise’s sudden onset of flapper hair, or the way Theo never gets to be an adult even though he’s far from the adolescent he was when the show started, or Rudy’s fashion-forward girlfriends. But we can always come home to Mom and Dad.
Erik Adams: We’ve voiced some complaints about how Rudy is essentially shooed away from an episode that should be all about her, but if “The Infantry Has Landed” made a big to-do about this moment in her life, it wouldn’t be a Cosby Show episode. And it wouldn’t respect Rudy’s wishes, either. The episode’s greatest achievement is in the way it balances its acknowledgement of “the last Huxtable woman” without turning it into a half-hour event. There’s a lot of material about identity (a concept that’s constantly in flux during adolescence) running beneath the episode’s surface, and The Cosby Show stays true to its own identity by treating Rudy’s Woman’s Day as just another day in the Huxtable household. Cliff reaches for a snack and gets shot down, one of Theo’s friends acts a fool, and Rudy gets her period. Other programs may be inclined to make a fuss about the last item in that list (if they mention it at all), but not this one. In real life, such moments are rarely afforded the “very special episode” treatment; The Cosby Show was brave enough to concede this point, even in its diluted, playing-to-the-audience state.
PDN: I know The Cosby Show was sort of the first post-racial U.S. sitcom, one that depicted a kind of upper-middle-class African-American life where being black was something you might take great pride in, but otherwise didn’t get bent out of shape about, and I applaud that. But even so, am I the only one who thinks Gone With The Wind is kind of a weird movie choice for a black woman and her daughter who are relaxing together while celebrating the girl’s emerging womanhood? I mean, are they going to laugh at Butterfly McQueen, or just fast-forward through her scenes? In any case, I hope it’s not a school night, because if they didn’t read the back of the video box, somebody should warn them they’re in for a long sit.
RM: The way the performers in The Cosby Show relish performing opposite one another is wonderful, and it translates into genuine laughs onstage. It shouldn’t be abnormal for people speaking funny lines to elicit laughter within the world they inhabit, but it’s difficult to make that laughter feel organic. While it wasn’t the focus of the episode, I could have watched Cliff needle Theo about his psychology report for another 15 minutes and not been bored.
TV: I had the opposite reaction: I just wanted that scene with Cliff avoiding Theo’s questions to end as quickly as possible. Also, I can’t believe I get to take Meredith’s traditional role in the fashion corner, but I really want to start wearing Theo’s combo of hooded sweatshirt tucked into overalls.
NM: Cosby is wearing an “SD Jr.” button in this episode, in tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., who died earlier that year. Before I got married, the minister who performed the ceremony insisted we spend a couple of hours with him in premarital counseling. I remember almost none of what he said. I remember only a book he gave us about how acts of kindness and acts of neediness toward each other equates to making deposits and withdrawals into our respective “love banks” (a metaphor my wife and I still occasionally use, albeit mockingly). And I remember he spent a good 10 minutes making sure I knew about periods. I didn’t have the heart to tell the man that I grew up reading Judy Blume books, and was thus well-informed.
DB: I’m struck by how much Shirley on Community owes to Clair Huxtable. Rashad’s tone and manner when admonishing Theo’s friend about women’s moods seem to be the explicit model for some of Shirley’s speeches. Looks like Malcolm-Jamal Warner grew up and TV-married a woman just like his TV-mom.
I’m the only daughter in my family, and in spite of coming of age far from the time of “pads the size of mattresses,” my mom tried to pass along hygienic techniques dating more from her generation than from mine. For example, I was trained in the use of a belt, even though adhesive pads had largely replaced them, and tampons were viewed with great suspicion. Only in the past few years do I finally feel like I’ve gotten up to date and in control. (Just in time for menopause!) Here’s what I’m planning to pass on to my daughter, and it’s a free tip for any ladies who feel like their menstrual cycles result in excessive contributions to landfills and the profit margins of drugstores: the Diva Cup. You’re welcome.
Next week: The Roundtable takes a break to observe the Fourth of July, and maybe gaze at something other than a TV for once.
After that: We consider the horrible things Kevin Arnold says behind our back in The Wonder Years’ “Nemesis.” (This episode is available on Netflix for Instant subscribers here. It is also available on YouTube. The first part is here.)