Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our series of posts on the best episodes from The Cosby Show (1984-1992, NBC), the early linchpin of the peacock network’s Must-See-TV lineup and a show often cited as responsible for resurrecting the situation comedy! I’m happy to report that all seasons have been released on DVD.
A doctor and a lawyer juggle their two careers with the raising of their five kids. The Cosby Show stars BILL COSBY as Cliff Huxtable, PHYLICIA RASHAD as Clair Huxtable, LISA BONET as Denise Huxtable, MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER as Theo Huxtable, TEMPESTT BLEDSOE as Vanessa Huxtable, and KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM as Rudy Huxtable. SABRINA LE BEAUF recurs as Sondra Huxtable.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fairly consistent with my disregard for sitcoms that feature more children than adults, as I find that this structure often gives a series misplaced carte blanche to rely on the young cast members’ cuteness for laughs that otherwise aren’t fostered by the writing and/or the presentation of the characters. (I’m also staunchly against unearned sentiment, in which these shows joyously wallow.) However, The Cosby Show proves that there’s an exception to every rule. With two adults and a cast of four (or depending, on the episode, five) regular children, this is a series that embraces its family-oriented design while recognizing the need to support its inherent charm with character-driven content. Well, at least that’s how it is in the beginning of the show’s eight-year run…
Produced by Marcy Carsey and Tom Warner, a powerful duo whose presence on this blog is just beginning, this star vehicle for Bill Cosby, the stand-up comic best known for his work on I Spy and a two-season sitcom of his own from 1969-71, initially began with a different concept — as a comedy about a blue collar family headed by two working-class parents. It was reportedly at the insistence of Cosby’s wife that the premise be altered to the one with which we’re familiar today, about two white collar professionals bringing up an upper middle class household. Now, I don’t often like talking about race within the context of this series because I find that over-engaging in this discussion obfuscates an honest look at the material. That is, when examining the depiction of race on The Cosby Show, there are those who celebrate the way it presented African Americans, thus crediting the show mostly for its image, which is itself irrespective of content, while there are those who decry the series for not addressing race in a more hard-hitting way, thus rejecting the show based on a failing to meet expectations imposed by an outside and irrelevant determinant. I don’t really want to deal with either.
But the conversation is unavoidable, so let’s do it now. Cosby and co-creators Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson were drawn to the redrafted concept because it would be a relative novelty. In fact, the only other successful serialized depiction of affluent African Americans on a comedy series had come in The Jeffersons, a show that we discussed here last year. One among Lear’s dynasty, that long-running series lost its vitality when its creator’s style of comedy became outmoded in the ever-changing ’80s. Not only was The Jeffersons a shell of its former self by its final 1984-85 season (the only year during which it was on the air with The Cosby Show), but the series — for the first two-thirds of its run — had made race relations the crux of its core concept and an element that fundamentally impacted the majority of its stories. Cosby, while deeply conscious about the image he wanted his show to project (because he knew that, rightly or wrongly, their single fictional family would be held up to represent many other families), he didn’t want his show to be about race. The family’s skin color was obvious, and if it came up in a story, it came up in a story — it wouldn’t actually be the story.
In this regard, Cosby was really paired with the right co-creators, for Weinberger (who had worked with Cosby on his earlier sitcom) and Leeson — as many of you will remember from past coverage — are both figures who had since come out of Tinker’s MTM, an enterprise with a style entirely different from Lear’s, whose writers, I believe, would have been incapable of honing a series that used race subliminally. (That’s no knock against Lear’s works, just an observation about the more direct and confrontational nature of his shows, many of which thrived as a result of this boldness.) Weinberger and Lesson, on the other hand, came from a world where story was never more important than the characters within it — a mode of operating that, if not providing instant guffaws, still boasted believable scripts with relatable characters. I credit them with launching this series on a successful course, one that allows a heretic like myself to appreciate every single member of the ensemble, deriving a substantial amount of enjoyment from the children themselves, each of whom boasts great definition.
It’s a testament to fine writing and even finer casting that I can genuinely claim to enjoy all four of the main children this season. Lisa Bonet is the most natural sitcom teenager you’ll ever see, rarely making a move that appears incongruous with the character (initially, that is). She also establishes herself here as the focus of some of the more fruitful stories, a distinction rivaled only by Malcolm Jamal-Warner’s Theo, the most effortless laugh-getter in the young cast and a presence who helps to solidify their collectively outstanding reputation. The younger two daughters, played by Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight Pulliam, aren’t as consistently strong, but I have nothing but good things to say about them with regard to this season. Bledsoe, who’ll soon be saddled with some of the show’s worst stories, displays a fiery command of line delivery that maybe never improves, while Pulliam, the youngest player and the one who comes closest to getting laughs she doesn’t earn, is actually written with a believability that was heretofore unmatched on television. In fact, the kids in general display a realism that’s foreign in entertainment — they’re as smart as regular children (something we rarely see), but not conveniently so. (The only Huxtable off-spring about which I’m not fond is Sondra, but we’ll save our talk on her for another week…)
Yet no matter how strong the kids are, we’re really here for Cosby, a figure whose recent reputation has threatened to tarnish his previously lauded body of work. I don’t intend to discuss anything but the series in these posts, so that will be the only veiled reference to the man’s personal life. However, I understand the difficulty some may have in separating Mr. Huxtable from Mr. Cosby, as so much of the show’s brilliance comes from Cosby himself — his life (which influences the very concept) and his stand-up, many bits of which are sprinkled throughout the first season. Even more pointedly, while the MTM folks are settling the character stuff, Cosby is defining the show’s sense of humor — it’s wacky and charming, but honest and relatable. Through it all, he’s hilarious, and the relationships he cultivates with each member of the family are breathtaking. It’s magical to see both the kids and the always dynamic Phylicia Rashad — an underrated sitcom matriarch who may be the show’s unsung gem (whom I also think had the toughest role) — genuinely laugh at Cosby’s antics. There’s a connection here that goes beyond the trite family fare we’re used to seeing. It’s special.
So what about this first season in particular? Well, it won three Emmys — directing, writing (for the pilot), and series. As far as I’m concerned, it won those statues deservedly, for The Cosby Show is most definitely the funniest and best written sitcom of the year. But the high mark of quality established here may prove to be a curse, for many feel, and felt at the time, that no season eclipsed the first in terms of excellence. I think there’s a lot of truth here, although my point-of-view is more shaded. As we’ll discuss next week, I think Season Two does a very admirable job of maintaining what’s been established while contributing its share of classics. And although many later years won’t get the near-unamious praise that I am willing to heap upon Season One (which still isn’t perfect — there are a few duds, like an awful backdoor pilot with Tony Orlando), I do have to note that the gulf between the best year, which is probably the first, and the worst, which we’ll inevitably be highlighting before long, isn’t as wide as other series’ (like All In The Family, or more recently, Night Court). And because I like concluding on a compliment, let’s go right to it… As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jay Sandrich.
01) Episode 1: “Theo’s Economic Lesson” [a.k.a. “Pilot”] (Aired: 09/20/84)
Cliff teaches Theo about economics and disapproves of Denise’s date.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Michael Leeson
At the risk of beginning our coverage on an air of pessimism, I must let you know that this wonderful pilot sets a standard of quality that I don’t think the series ever matches — even with more interesting stories, further defined characters, and bigger laughs. There’s something so incredibly pure about the relationships established here, all of which will remain the same (for the most part) throughout the rest of the series. The highlight is the scene between Cliff and Theo where father teaches son about budgeting with the help of Monopoly money. It’s one of the brightest moments of the entire series, and sets the template for a handful of unorthodox (but inventive and delightful) parenting techniques that we’ll see throughout the series. There are a lot of laughs here, and while I’d like to credit Weinberger and Leeson’s script, we also must note the evident hand of Cosby, whose stand-up material is weaved throughout. A wonderful debut — I too would have picked-up the series in a heartbeat based on what I see here.
02) Episode 2: “Goodbye Mr. Fish” (Aired: 09/27/84)
Cliff decides to hold a funeral when Rudy’s fish dies.
Written by Earl Pomerantz
Second episodes are tough, especially when they follow a particularly enjoyable pilot. This installment is a comedown in quality, but the descent is minor, and in this case, I think some of this success can be attributed to the fine work of Earl Pomerantz, another veteran writer from the MTM school of character-comedy. The premise itself is incredibly relatable and still moderately fresh, even if the show doesn’t really maximize the obvious comedic possibilities in a way that some other shows might. But that’s part of why the first season of The Cosby Show is so special — the reality is heightened ever-so-slightly — and guffaws based on gaggy situations are ignored in favor of natural developments, all of which make time for Cosby to be Cosby.
03) Episode 5: “A Shirt Story” (Aired: 10/18/84)
Theo regrets asking Denise to make him a copy of a designer shirt.
Written by John Markus
If Malcolm Jamal-Warner, and by proxy, Theo, didn’t make a strong enough case for his exceptional comedic merits in the series premiere, this episode cements him as a reliable source of laughs. Not only does he have a relationship with his folks that’s utterly different than the ones they share with his sisters (and some of this is because he’s their only son — which would be reflected in any family with this dynamic), but he also has a relationship with Lisa Bonet’s Denise that always allows for believable and comedically ripe siblings moments. (And, as I sang the praises of Bonet in my introduction, the two play off of each other well.) This is actually a more ostentatious episode than many of the year’s other higher efforts, but it’s still funny.
04) Episode 8: “Play It Again, Vanessa” (Aired: 11/08/84)
Cliff refuses to let Vanessa quit music lessons before the upcoming recital.
Written by Jerry Ross
As alluded to in the seasonal introduction, you’re likely not to see as many Vanessa episodes as Theo or Denise episodes on these lists because the show often selects her to handle the more “After School” special-type stories (the kind that, unfortunately, tend to typify the domestic situation comedies of the ’80s). But in these auspicious beginnings, Vanessa actually is a presence that attracts more comedic notions. Once again, we begin with a very grounded presence: parent insists that child honor a commitment even though said child wishes to quit. We’ve all been there! What I appreciate about this installment most of all is that the concert is horrendously bad — there’s no convenient surprises: Vanessa’s solo is rotten. But it’s logical and very funny. (Also, Dizzy Gillespie guest stars as the music teacher!)
05) Episode 9: “How Ugly Is He?” (Aired: 11/15/84)
Cliff and Clair spend an uncomfortable double date with Denise and her new beau.
Written by John Markus
This Denise-focused episode returns to a theme addressed in the pilot: Cliff’s disdain for the types of boys with whom Denise becomes romantically involved. The title of this episode, which was also a line in the series premiere, should be an indication of the elevated comedy quotient within the script, and make no mistake, this offering does deliver. The uncomfortable dinner scene that Cliff and Clair share with Denise and her boyfriend, played by Kristoff St. John, is a delight, with every conceivable laugh mined from the type of conversation you’d expect these characters to have. And although this may be among the more conventional episodes of the season, it’s actually one of the strongest: taking what’s old and making it new.
06) Episode 11: “Knight To Night” [a.k.a. “You’re Not A Mother Night”] (Aired: 12/06/84)
Cliff plans a romantic evening with Clair, free of all their parenting responsibilities.
Written by Karyl Geld & Korby Siamis
Although I don’t believe that this installment is among the most hilarious on this list, it’s valuable for two primary reasons. The first is, as with many of the offerings highlighted here (as I’m sure you can see), the foundation for the story is relatable — a working mom needs a break from all of her obligations. It’s a concept that’s actually become more popular since this episode aired. The second reason that I appreciate this installment is for the long scenes afforded to Cosby and Rashad (well, she’s technically still Ayers-Allen at this point), and they have such an easy and amiable chemistry that even if the material is substandard for this exceptional season, they make it better through both the truth and fun that they conjure here. Good performances.
07) Episode 14: “Independence Day” (Aired: 01/10/85)
Theo pierces his ear without permission and gets a lecture from his grandfather.
Written by Matt Robinson
I suppose now’s as good a time as any to let you know that I’m not overly fond of the installments that heavily feature Cliff’s parents because they never deliver the comedic goods that you’d anticipate from the folks playing Cosby’s character’s parents (although, as you can imagine, there are and will be notable exceptions that I highlight here). But this isn’t Earle Hyman’s first appearance on the series, and by this point, his character’s personality is well-established. That makes this episode easier, but I’ve actually chosen to highlight this one (raising it from the honorable mentions where it might have otherwise resided) because it’s a Theo story, which means that the installment exists upon a stronger and more rewarding premise.
08) Episode 16: “Jitterbug Break” (Aired: 01/31/85)
Cliff and Clair teach Denise and her friends how to jitterbug.
Written by Matt Williams
Perhaps the first instance of the show crafting episodes around a gimmick (thus marking the gradual evolution away from the MTM style to the new Carsey-Warner style that will largely come to define the decade), it’s still new enough here that I can forgive. The gimmick in question is dancing, one of many times in which this writing employs musical sequences, a fondly remembered component of the series that will exist throughout its run. However, there’s more to this offering than just the music — and what compelled me to spotlight this outing here was the fluid and easy presentation of the relationships, specifically the moments that Cosby shares with Bonet, who makes a lot of this episode (for me) and reiterates her strength.
09) Episode 21: “The Younger Woman” (Aired: 03/14/85)
Cliff’s friend brings over his new girlfriend, who’s considerably younger.
Written by John Markus
Is this installment out-of-place within the rest of the season? Yes. But that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable. Okay, the premise itself is tired, and something we’ve seen a dozen times; it’s a very ’70s story too, reminding of scripts produced for everything from All In The Family to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But while the episode won’t get any points for originality, it earns distinction for its adult subject matter. It really is a story about the parents, and the material afforded to Cliff and Clair is some of the best of the season. It’s so strong, in fact, that one wishes we saw more of this Cosby Show every now and again, particularly during the stretches when VSE (very special episodes) seem to permeate. Atypical — and proud of it.
10) Episode 22: “The Slumber Party” (Aired: 03/28/85)
Cliff entertains Rudy and her friends during a slumber party.
Written by Carmen Finestra
Aside from the obnoxious voiceover that Pulliam does at the start, this episode is a delight. It’s all about giving Cosby time for shtick while playing off of Rudy and her other little friends, but because the comic does this type of material so well, this thinly designed episode becomes a very funny tour de force. There are a lot of wonderful little moments here, particularly when Cliff calls each participant in the slumber party up to talk to him. These kids are clearly having the time of their young lives and it’s infectious. But we also must acknowledge Fenestra’s script, which eschews the cuteness that makes me cringe (the kind that appears in that opening VO) in favor of genuinely funny material, which allows Cosby to fill in all the dots. A favorite!
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “One More Time,” in which Clair considers having another child (naturally allowing for more adult subject matter), “Bonjour, Sondra,” which introduces Sondra and the concept of the family forum (closest to making the above list), “Father’s Day,” an enjoyable episode for the entire ensemble that also came close to the above list, and “Cliff’s Birthday,” a thin script designed to showcase the guest appearance of Lena Horne, who makes it worth mentioning.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“Theo’s Economic Lesson”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!