Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation 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, KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM as Rudy Huxtable, and SABRINA LE BEAUF as Sondra Huxtable.
For shows that debut as runaway hits in their opening season, there often exists a wicked phenomenon called then dreaded “Second Year Slump,” in which the sophomore season fails to match or best the quality that had been established in the year prior. And even if the results in Year Two aren’t devastating, the fact that any bit of quality was lost acts to tarnish the series’ longevity — either propelling it to improve in Season Three or hastening a self-fulfilling descent. I actually find this to be a theory that’s generally too pat to be so readily applied without qualification, for while we have seen examples on this blog with trajectories similar to the concept described above (in wonderful shows even, like Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), we’re often basing our thoughts more on the exceptionalism of the first year rather than any shortcomings inherent within the second. This is precisely how I feel about the second season of The Cosby Show, which is a terrifically strong showing for the series, and probably the second best collection of episodes out of the entire eight years — behind, of course, the first.
As mentioned last week, I believe the second season of The Cosby Show does a solid job of extending what was presented within the first season. There’s plenty of Cosby’s trademark humor, plenty of believable well-written plots (many of which include the ripest characters, like Theo and the parents), and plenty of scripts that I can already call some of the series’ finest. But while there’s a lot of Season One here, there’s also a lot of later years as well. For in addition to all of the above, there’s plenty of afterschool-ish stories (many of them involving Vanessa, a character whose initial promise is completely wrecked here in Season Two), plenty of episodes built entirely around gimmicks (like unneeded guest appearances or extended musical sequences), and plenty of evident pride in the show’s success — an attitude that, if not checked, threatens to corrupt the relatability that initially made the series so valuable. Now, we’re not talking late-Seinfeld levels of smug, but there is a sense of importance (evidenced at the very end of the first season, like in the episode with Lena Horne) that distinguishes the second year from the first. But it’s not visible all the time — only in a few select moments (mostly with Cosby).
But ultimately, it would be disingenuous to lambast the second season without acknowledging full well that we’re still in a good place in the series’ life and that, here in the ’85-’86 season, The Cosby Show is a major contender in the sitcom world (heck, it was the most popular show on TV this season, climbing from #3 in the first). And I enjoy these episodes immensely, believing them, as I’ve written before, to be (for the most part) indicative of a strong series and what it was capable of delivering on its finest days. (Pay attention to the honorable mentions — this is one of those seasons where there are more than ten worthwhile installments.) Anyway, 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jay Sandrich.
01) Episode 25: “First Day Of School” (Aired: 09/26/85)
The family prepares for the kids’ first day of the new school year.
Written by John Markus & Elliot Shoenman
When I wrote above about the series’ newfound sense of pride regarding its early success, this is one of the installments where I think it’s most evident. Of course, as the obvious choice for a season premiere, we could attribute this tone to both an excitement to be back at work and a confidence about the material. Truthfully, this isn’t actually a stellar episode, but these low-concept scripts are usually preferable over those with high-concepts (of course, there are notable exceptions — even in this season). I appreciate that not a lot goes on in this excursion; it’s just about re-entering these characters lives at the start of a natural new chapter: the first day of school. Relatable, character-driven, and ultimately charming. Great start to the year.
02) Episode 26: “The Juicer” (Aired: 10/03/85)
Rudy and her friend wreak havoc in the kitchen while Vanessa is babysitting.
Written by Matt Williams
Peter, the neighbor to whom we were introduced in last year’s superior “The Slumber Party” installment, returns in this broad, but still obviously enjoyable offering that throws a lot of material to the youngest members of the cast — always a risky move (especially as far as I’m concerned). However, at this point in the run, each member of the cast is written in a fun and believable manner, and I don’t mind seeing a lot of Rudy or her friend. I don’t even mind Vanessa here, although this is one of the first installments where she enters that self-absorbed middle school stage, a phase that’s very believable, but apparently not conducive to original and funny stories. Here, they use the character’s behavioral arc for the story’s benefit and it works.
03) Episode 27: “Happy Anniversary” (Aired: 10/10/85)
The Huxtables have several surprises for Cliff’s parents’ anniversary.
Written by Elliot Shoenman
Gimmick alert! Gimmick alert! You know, I said last week that I’m not automatically fond of installments that feature a lot of Cliff’s parents, and I have to reiterate the sentiment again because I simply don’t find them to be innately comedic. If I’m laughing at them, I’m generally laughing at the relationships and/or the situation comedy being employed. But this episode, in which they’re major players, is considered a series classic, and while it’s not one of my personal favorites, I think it deserves to be hailed as one of the year’s highlights. Of course, it’s not considered a classic because of the parents, but rather for a Huxtable family lip-synch to Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is The Right Time.” It’s a lot of kooky fun — an unforgettable moment.
04) Episode 28: “Cliff In Love” (Aired: 10/17/85)
Cliff tries to pair a recently single Sondra with a boy of whom he approves.
Written by John Markus
In last week’s post I alluded to my displeasure with the Sondra character, who, like Cliff’s parents, isn’t the comedic entity that her siblings are. I’ve always believed that this was the result of a lack of definition within the character more than the performance of the actress (who got the role only after Whitney Houston turned it down), although when Sondra does start to get more of a personality, as she does in this installment, the actress doesn’t maximize possible laughs. That said, pairing Sondra with Elvin makes her infinitely more interesting, because he’s a well-crafted character who inspires comedy, instigates conflict, and undergoes tangible emotional growth. This is his first installment and it’s quite memorable as a result.
05) Episode 32: “Denise Drives” (Aired: 11/14/85)
Denise saves up her money with the intention of buying a nice car.
Written by Carmen Finestra
Every now and again this series is able to deliver an episode that’s as close to perfection as you’ll get — we might call it “Essential Cosby.” In most cases, given the nature of the series and its humor, these special episodes don’t feature any truly outstanding moments (as you’d find, for instance, in the year’s MVE — discussed below), but they do boast a seamless utilization of character-driven laughs in aid of a relatable story made fresh by the show’s unique capabilities. That’s how’d I classify this outing, which concerns Denise’s attempts to convince her parents to let her buy a car, therefore allowing great moments for the parents and the two oldest children. Also, there’s a terrific scene with Cliff and a pair of middle-aged parents-to-be. A favorite.
06) Episode 35: “Denise’s Friend” (Aired: 12/12/85)
One of Denise’s friends comes to Cliff for medical counseling.
Written by John Markus
The controversial Stacey Dash appears as a classmate of Denise’s who comes to Cliff for help after being sexually active, a fact that she’s chosen to keep from her parents. This mildly dramatic story (which isn’t played heavily, like it might have been in a Lear show or in other mediocre ’80s series with different comedic aims) is actually just a jumping off point for the place that Markus’ script really wants to go, which is to the question of how honest the Huxtable kids are with their parents, leading to a family forum, the sequence which makes this episode a classic and earns it a place on this list. When all together, the excellent chemistry the TV family shares is allowed to be displayed in full force, and there are lots of laughs in support.
07) Episode 42: “A Touch Of Wonder” (Aired: 02/20/86)
Denise and Theo are overjoyed when they get into a car accident with Stevie Wonder.
Written by Matt Williams
Gimmick alert! Gimmick alert! This time we have an episode entirely built around a guest star — in this case, Stevie Wonder. As usual with these types of shows, it doesn’t really matter about the quality of an episode, it’s all about what the episode has to offer (a name). I’d be lying if I said this didn’t bother me, because I want every episode to be adjudicated based on its individual strengths and weaknesses. However, sometimes it’s impossible to ignore the sheer entertainment value that comes from the gimmick itself, even when you dislike the simple fact that it’s being utilized — such is the case with this one. I enjoy Stevie Wonder and I enjoy seeing him with the Huxtables. This isn’t a hilarious episode, but it’s entertaining and most unforgettable.
08) Episode 43: “Full House” (Aired: 02/27/86)
Cliff seeks peace and quiet in a house overrun with people.
Written by Gary Kott
Similar to the season premiere, my fondness for this episode is predicated on its low-concept, as the premise for this episode is structured around Cliff’s attempts to relax following an early morning delivery, but having difficulty finding peace and quiet due to the various kids that are all over the house. It’s a loose episode with a structure that, once again, allows for nothing except character moments. Furthermore, because it’s all structured around Cliff, we get more Cosby here than we do in other offerings, making this a particularly amusing installment — even more so than the aforementioned season premiere, which thrives for similar reasons. One of my favorite episodes, this one isn’t gaudy or gimmicky. It’s classic well-written Cosby Show.
09) Episode 46: “Theo’s Holiday” (Aired: 04/03/86)
The Hutxtables conspire to teach Theo what it’s like in the real world.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, and Matt Williams
Although I usually prefer low-concept offerings over high-concept offerings, this outing, which belongs definitely in the latter’s camp, has earned my choice for the year’s MVE and proves a notable exception to that predilection. But this would be a really difficult episode not to appreciate. Not only is this a Theo-centric script, but the premise is wonderfully inventive, as Cliff and Clair conspire to transform the house into a “real world” role-playing exercise designed to teach their cocky son just how difficult living on his own is going to be. Harkening back to the Monopoly scene in the pilot, the beauty of this episode is that it’s all about Cliff and Clair’s perhaps unorthodox, but exceedingly creative and effective, parenting techniques. Furthermore, there are a bevy of laughs in support of the story that makes this offering not only the year’s most entertaining, but it’s most seminal. A true classic.
10) Episode 47: “The Card Game” (Aired: 04/10/86)
Cliff plays a game of pinochle with his father and a former professor.
Written by Matt Williams
Guest star Roscoe Lee Browne earned an Emmy for his work in this episode, playing an old English professor of Cliff’s who steps into the doctor’s regular pinochle game, playing against Cliff’s father and his braggadocios partner, thus securing Cliff his first win. There are endless laughs in those scenes as all four gentleman seem to be having a lot of fun. Also, this is kind of a prescient installment, for it once again addresses Hillman College, further setting the stage for Denise’s upcoming move and the 1987 spin-off A Different World (on which Browne will be a recurring presence). Meanwhile, there’s also a subplot involving Theo and his girlfriend which has some sweet laughs, but in this case, the A-plot makes the episode more worthwhile.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Theo And The Older Woman,” which doesn’t have a great script, but affords delectable moments for Theo and some truly tantalizing scenes for Cliff and Clair, making it a really difficult episode to overlook (it’s just a lot of fun), “Clair’s Toe,” which is the year’s best outing for Rashad and remains another entry really difficult to not highlight alongside those above, and “The Dentist,” an episode built around the bizarre guest appearance of the otherwise entertaining Danny Kaye (a figure featured several times here on Musical Theatre Mondays), who was angling for his own show. I love Mr. Kaye, but, unlike Stevie Wonder, he’s an odd fit on The Cosby Show, sorry to say. The former two installments, however, are both really strong and could have easily been included in a list of 12 seasonal favorites — leaving them out was not a decision I enjoyed or took lightly.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Cosby Show goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!