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, MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER as Theo Huxtable, TEMPESTT BLEDSOE as Vanessa Huxtable, KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM as Rudy Huxtable, SABRINA LE BEAUF as Sondra Huxtable Tibideaux, and GEOFFREY OWENS as Elvin Tibideaux.
After a rocky third season in which two members of the principal cast were underutilized — Bonet, because her character was narratively made to go off to college, and Rashad, who had an ill-timed maternity leave that lasted the entire middle of the season — this year has to answer conclusively whether the rampant mediocrity we discussed last week was attributable solely to the lack of balance and consistency among the ensemble or if the diminished quality was endemic of much more serious problems within the show’s creative operations. Watching the entire fourth season, an answer begins to appear, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as we might like. For although the show is in a better position now, with a far greater number of worthwhile hits and a far fewer number of forgettable duds, The Cosby Show‘s fourth year still isn’t able to bounce back to the place of excellence in which it resided during its first two (and clearly now, much superior) seasons. Can we still enjoy it? Yes. Can we call it brilliant? No.
As always, the year starts strong, rescinds into a slightly-lesser-but-mostly-rewarding homeostatic plateau, and then gasps for some metaphorical breaths to carry the season to its conclusion. Through it all, we see a series much more humorously solid than in the year prior, however, when the show fails (as it does several times during Season Four), the mediocrity is different — last season’s was bland and sad; this season’s begins to be foul and tragic (the kind of which we’ll see more in weeks ahead). So in some ways, this season is boasting higher highs and lower lows than what we’d seen in Season Three, and in cases like these, enjoyment is predicated on what a viewer is individually willing to tolerate: will you allow this season to be one of your favorites, even though for every classic there’s a stinker? Or do you prefer a more systematic below-average output that offends as seldom as it delights? Personally, my preference is usually for the former — and in the case of The Cosby Show, I like Season Four because it’s more comedically rewarding than the third.
And part of this, of course, has to do with the full-time usage of Clair, one of the show’s not-so-secret weapons, who anchors some of the series’ strongest episodes and always serves as an essential counterpoint to Cliff and the relationships he shares with the kids. She grounds the stories and amplifies the laughs: exactly the kind of presence we need. And so even with Denise making fewer appearances (only two to be exact, one of which was produced in Season Three and held over), as this is the year where she’s headlining the debut season of A Different World (the popular spin-off on which many members of The Cosby Show would crossover, even after Bonet had to leave the series; more on this next week), there’s a sense, even when watching these episodes, that she’s still present in some capacity. And because we got used to her popping in and out randomly last year, we’re desensitized to the disappointment of not seeing her as much as we’d like. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s also a hindsight-invoked fact that the character’s best moments are behind her, so a missing Denise doesn’t sting the same as a missing Clair.
Anything else worth noting here? Well, Sondra and Elvin marry and feature into a few plots (including the strong season premiere), Theo remains the best of the children for both story and laughs, Tempestt Bledsoe struggles to craft an enjoyable character for Vanessa amidst continually unfortunate stories, and Rudy’s material begins increasing in volume, as the show relies on her more often to carry off the smart-mouthed-kid brand of comedy. In general, the three children still in the house are doing their best, and I continue to believe they are a strong junior ensemble — perhaps the best on ’80s television. And, as always, Cosby anchors the show satisfyingly, even when the scripts fall short of previously reached heights. So 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 75: “Call Of The Wild” (Aired: 09/24/87)
Sondra and Elvin return from their honeymoon with a surprising announcement.
Written by Garry Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Season Four begins with an episode of more longterm narrative substance than most on today’s list, as we learn that not only have Sondra and Elvin married, but that they have also decided to change their future plans and go into business together — opening up a store with camping equipment. It’s an odd and comedically kooky turnaround, with the others’ reactions to this news forming the basis of the installment’s comedy, quite potently actually. And although this isn’t an excellent episode by the standards of the earliest seasons, there’s plenty to enjoy here, like the final scene with Theo and his two parents, and the invigorated authority that compels many of the season’s early excursions ultimately elevates this offering to a place of exceptional enjoyment. Easily the year’s strongest outing, and therefore, my choice for this week’s MVE.
02) Episode 76: “Theogate” (Aired: 10/01/87)
The Huxtables put Theo on trial when he is suspected of lying.
Written by John Markus | Directed by Jay Sandrich
My MVE runner-up, this one is built very much like my selection from Season Two and the most important scene from my Season One pick, because the story is rooted in the heightened parenting techniques that Cliff and Clair use to teach Theo a lesson. We’ve been though the monopoly money exercise, the “real world” roleplaying, and now we’re in a homemade court of law, as Theo’s being tried for potentially lying to his parents. I appreciate these episodes due to their originality, the comedy that comes from Theo’s character in conflict with his folks, and for the scripts’ fidelity to Cosby and his stand-up persona. This particular installment, while feeling like more of a gimmick than the two aforementioned, boasts stronger moments for Clair. A hit.
03) Episode 79: “Shakespeare” (Aired: 10/22/87)
Two visiting college professors give the Huxtables a Shakespeare lesson.
Written by Matt Robinson | Directed by Jay Sandrich
This was the episode referenced in my introduction — it was produced as part of the third season and held over. It’s not nearly as amusing as the actual Season Four episodes from this period that are highlighted above and below, but it does seem to be a notch above a lot of the material from last week’s collection of offerings. Both Clair and Denise, the latter of whom, by this point, is starring in her own show set at Hillman, are well-utilized, and this outing grants wonderful guest appearances from Roscoe Lee Browne (playing the same role as before — Cliff and Clair’s old Hillman professor) and Christopher Plummer. Both get to do some Shakespeare recitations, making for some “teachable” moments; the real highlight, however, is Rudy’s story…
04) Episode 80: “That’s Not What I Said” (Aired: 10/29/87)
Cliff and Clair argue over Theo and then have trouble reconciling.
Written by Carmen Finestra | Directed by Jay Sandrich
As much as I enjoy the kids, there’s a limit to what the show can do with them while maintaining an essential amount of comedy, so it’s always a needed pleasure when a script crafts a rare story for the two adults, who center the show as such a marvelous and, from what what we see (mostly due to the material they receive), underrated team. This episode puts them in conflict, a common sitcom device (how many times did Lucy and Ricky fight — once a month?) that we rarely see employed on this series. But the script is very smart about how it gets them into an argument, not imposing some contrived situation, but rather making it about one of the kids, a source of conflict in many marriages. Believable, funny, unique — a seasonal favorite.
05) Episode 85: “Dance Mania” (Aired: 12/03/87)
Theo and Cockroach try to get on a television dance show.
Written by Matt Williams | Directed by Tony Singletary
There are several things we must note about this episode. One, this is the first of four appearances that a young Adam Sandler makes on the series as a friend and classmate of Theo’s. Second, this is the final episode with Cockroach, Theo’s best friend over the past three seasons. And three, while this story’s A-plot involves Theo and Cockroach and is therefore poised to be more comedically rewarding from the outset, the real draw from which this episode benefits is the subplot in which Vanessa tries to teach her father how to do the “new math.” It’s a simple story (my favorite) with a lot of natural character-driven laughs that are perfect for Cosby and his comedic brand. A very funny offering, with more than one thing to offer!
06) Episode 86: “The Locker Room” (Aired: 12/10/87)
Theo worries about Vanessa when she accepts a date with one of his friends.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Ah, this is an interesting installment for it illustrates just how much heavy-lifting the three housebound kids are now doing on a weekly basis. And my feelings on this are mixed: I appreciate the kids as being better than most, but they’re not great at elevating material that desperately needs elevation. I’m noting this here because this isn’t a fantastic offering — but it is one of Season Four’s most memorable, and this, surprisingly, is due to the premise, which has Theo worried about Vanessa’s reputation (and by association, his reputation) when she begins going out with one of this friends, who’s a popular locker room braggart about his romantic exploits with women. At some spots odd, and at others delightful. A mixed, but unique bag.
07) Episode 88: “Bookworm” (Aired: 01/07/88)
Cliff joins Clair at a book club while Sondra hosts her siblings.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Jay Sandrich
If you’ve noticed over these past few weeks (and on Sitcom Tuesdays in general), there are many times that I choose episodes for the subplots as opposed to the main plots. So when there are at least two stories in an episode (a design about which I’ve been outspoken in the past), I’m generally more enthused when the primary plot is the source of the greatest reward, because, after all, the episode was structured to showcase it most readily. That’s how I feel about the premise of Cliff accompanying Clair to a book club: it’s funny, it gives them both great material, and it’s something we haven’t seen before — much stronger than the Sondra/Elvin watching the kids subplot. Fortunately, the episode is written well enough to be enjoyed in full.
08) Episode 89: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (Aired: 01/14/88)
Cliff and Clair intervene when Rudy has a problem with her teacher.
Story by Chris Aeur and John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Teleplay by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Carl Lauten & Chuck Vinson
Melba Moore, a performer whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (and who had headlined a very disastrous sitcom of her own that premiered on the night of the Challenger disaster), guest stars in this episode as Rudy’s teacher, who instructs Rudy to practice the violin, instead of the cymbals that she wanted. There’s a fair amount of humor in this offering and some wonderful moments for Kenny, a figure who always delivers ample laughs (and will be a major presence on next week’s list). The offering concludes with another awful musical performance, reminiscent of Vanessa’s tragic recital in a very entertaining first season offering. Is the show recycling stories? Perhaps, but perhaps there’s a sense of knowingness about the repetition. Enjoyable.
09) Episode 92: “Waterworks” (Aired: 02/11/88)
Clair hires a group of plumbers to fix the bathroom pipes.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Tony Singletary
The premise of Cliff not wanting to accept the fact that he’s not a handy plumber yields a lot of great comedy, and with that foundation there to prop up the laughs, this installment is at an advantage from inception. Fortunately, the script itself delivers the levels of humor that we’re anticipating, becoming unquestionably the most enjoyable offering from the back half of the fourth season (which, as noted above, sees a significant decline in quality starting around this time). Also, as with several installments featured on today’s list, the episode carves out wonderful and memorable moments for Clair, a tactic proving to be an almost infallible boon to any offering — and one that we’ll see deployed more often in the years ahead…
10) Episode 97: “The Prom” (Aired: 03/24/88)
Theo and his friends get ready for the prom.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Tony Singletary
This, in all honesty, is not a great episode, and is more than any other offering highlighted in today’s post, one that deserves to be among the honorable mentions. So why was it elevated to this list over the many other choices? Well, once again, a lot of Theo is generally a smart tactic as long as the premise is workable and the script is adequate. Additionally, I appreciate the moments thrown to both Cliff and Clair, along with the sweet musical sequences that they share — always a hallmark for the series. In fact, it’s warm and feel-good to see them dancing together at the end of this offering. So the hit-and-miss humor is overcome by — dare I say it? — a RARE worthwhile core sentimentality. (Fortunately, it’s not too sticky or cloying.)
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: None. The difference between those worth highlighting and those not worth highlighting seemed clearer than usual.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“Call Of The Wild”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!