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.
This isn’t a good season of The Cosby Show, but I’ve gone back and forth over the years as to whether or not I think it’s worse than the third. Initially, with mediocrity running rampant throughout these 26 half-hours, I found Season Five to be the most dire thus far, because while the issues I had with Season Three could somehow be attributed to cast shakeups, this year has no good excuse for not meeting our already reduced expectations. For instance, one could ascribe some of Season Three’s issues on the phasing out of Denise (a theory that nevertheless doesn’t account for the show’s larger problems). But this year’s diminished quality clearly has nothing to do with the minimal usage of Lisa Bonet, whose pregnancy forced her to leave the spin-off she had headlined, A Different World (which added Rashad’s sister Debbie Allen as an executive producer and pushed forward with new cast members), and appear in four episodes at the start of The Cosby Show‘s fifth season to explain her departure from Hillman and find an excuse to get her off for the rest of the year. (This tactic works moderately well; despite Bonet’s loose clothes and the writers’ vengeful theft of some of Denise’s brain cells, the show justifies the arc by using it to fuel a broader narrative about the kids all going through changes.)
But Bonet appeared even less often in Season Four than she does here, so we have already grown accustomed to her not being around, and although the show would have absolutely benefited from her presence throughout Season Five (because that would have allowed more creativity — something with which this year struggles), Season Four illustrated that Denise alone is not responsible for whether or not the series works… Frankly, the only character whose absence seemed to prove palpably detrimental is Rashad’s (there is a noticeable difference between Seasons Three and Four, at least for a while), and fortunately, the show is determined not to leave her underutilized ever again, resulting in a continued increase in the comedic material thrown to Clair. This is definitely a boon to the series, and in more recent viewings of the show (particularly for these blog posts), I’ve come to really appreciate her contributions at this point in The Cosby Show‘s life — one of the reasons that I’ve begun to doubt whether or not I would still consider the fifth year beneath Season Three. (In fact, you’ll see a lot of Clair represented in the list below.) But then, when examining the way the other kids are used here, I’m reminded of why this year seems so underwhelming…
While Elvin and Sondra have twins (yawn), the season gives the other three housebound kids more stories to headline. Theo, still at home but now going to NYU, remains the Cosby child most often relied upon for story, while Vanessa continues to get those troublesome morality-based plots that come close to VSE territory (the only saving grace here comes from the occasionally comedic ways that her folks respond). Additionally, Pulliam’s Rudy also sees an elevated usage, as the show relies more and more on her contributions to the weekly comedy — and let’s note that several offerings on today’s list are bolstered specifically by Rudy and her interactions with Kenny (Deon Richmond), a hysterical presence who brightens every scene. And yet, because the stories thrown to these kids begin taking them farther away from the house, their family, and the domestic constructs by which the show seems to feel trapped, the inevitable result finds The Cosby Show moving away from its roots, thus inviting its audience to be more aware of its failings — more precisely, the times when the kids (and the guest kids, in particular) aren’t as good as they’re pretending to be. It’s in these moments where we crave more of Cosby himself, whose material this year is also spotty, and more dependent than ever on how integrated his character can be within the weekly story. It’s a problem (and one that the Cosby-heavy Season Three didn’t really have to face).
Now, I get why a show expands its universe — to get fresh stories — but when the universe expands, shouldn’t the quality? Season Five is clearly trying to broaden its horizons (to avoid some of the failings of the last two seasons) by further developing the kids, giving them a larger roster of supporting players, and setting each regular Cosby child up for tangible growth. But… this doesn’t satisfy comedically like some good ol’ Cosby shtick does. And the fact that the fifth season of The Cosby Show gets arguably less enjoyable (or more accurately, more inconsistently enjoyable) than last season is evidence of just how much of a rut into which the series has gotten itself both narratively and comedically, and how desperately it needs a shake-up (which comes next year…) In the meantime, 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 99: “Together Again And Again” (Aired: 10/06/88)
To their parents’ chagrin, both Theo and Denise move back home.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
The fifth season, like almost every year prior, opens with an incredibly tight installment that seems to promise a better season than what’s inevitably delivered. However, in the case of this Season Five premiere, we’re seeing the weakest and least-assured promise yet. The kernel of the idea is comedic — just when Cliff and Clair think that they’ll only have two of their five kids in the house and are therefore closer to being alone, both Theo and Denise announce that they’re moving in again, bringing the total number of kids back to four. But the execution of this premise is only adequate, with a somewhat lower energy, a shortage of big unpredictable laughs, and just a general tiredness. (Not to mention the devolution of Denise’s character…)
02) Episode 102: “Move It” [a.k.a. “The Baby Game”] (Aired: 10/27/88)
Cliff and Clair try to convince Sondra and Elvin to accept financial help.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
If you’ve been following my coverage of this series over the past few weeks, you’ll know that I think Sondra is totally uncomedic, leaving Elvin in the position of having to over-deliver some laughs. As a result, stories that involve the two are very hit-and-miss. In the case of this installment, which serves to get the young pregnant couple away from the shabby apartment in which they were living (we saw it last season too) into a nicer place, the premise in place is functional and dull, but the script itself is a cut above its competition, especially the installments that open the season, many of which are also functional — but do so with far fewer laughs. And continuing a trend on today’s list, this passes as good because of this season’s lower standards.
03) Episode 106: “Cyranoise De Bergington” (Aired: 11/17/88)
Theo gets dumped by two women and seeks help from Cliff.
Written by John Markus & Gary Kott | Directed by Carl Lauten & Chuck Vinson
Seasons Four and Five find the show inundated with scripts that revolve around Theo, primarily because he’s the most comedically natural of the remaining kids, and also the one that engenders the best stories. The only problem, one with which this season struggles, is that these episodes often take us away from the core cast in favor of so-so peripheral characters, like new girlfriend Justine, and recurring friends like Howard, played by Reno [Roy] Wilson. Generally, the best of these outings find a way to involve the other regulars — such as this one, which integrates Cliff into the proceedings as Theo’s “wingman.” As a result, the premise works much better than other Theo-based Season Five entires. (Also, Naomi Campbell guest stars.)
04) Episode 107: “How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?” (Aired: 11/24/88)
Vanessa and two friends take singing lessons in the hopes of forming a girl group.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Tony Singletary
With regard to Vanessa, it’s important that I reiterate how difficult it is to find an installment thrown to her character that works solely based on the story and how she is written within it — and this is no slight to Tempestt Bledsoe, who reveals regularly (especially in the first season) that she’s a solid performer with a strong sense of humor. But if we’re going to find enjoyment from these “coming of age” stories thrown to her, we’re going to find it from the incidentals — like, in this case, in the performance of Betty Carter as the singing teacher, or in the comedically enraged playing of Rashad’s Clair, whose angry side is hilarious (making the episode) and will be trotted out more often in these next few seasons as a means of adding laughs to similar plots.
05) Episode 108: “If The Dress Fits, Wear It” (Aired: 12/08/88)
Clair tries to lose five pounds in less than a week.
Written by John Markus & Carmen Finestra | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Rashad’s real-life sister Debbie Allen (a familiar face to TV and Broadway fans), who was currently serving as a creative force on the Denise-less A Different World, guest stars in this one as a sadistic exercise teacher who whips Clair into shape — so that she can lose six pounds in under a week and fit into a custom dress that she plans to wear at an important function. These scenes are lots of fun and Rashad always delivers when she gets decent material to play. Meanwhile, an additional source of humor comes from the subplot of Cliff overhearing Clair’s secret diet plans and deciding to have some fun by tempting his wife away from her mission. One of my favorite episodes from the season (one I actually enjoy), and an MVE contender.
06) Episode 110: “Truth Or Consequences” (Aired: 01/05/89)
Vanessa’s boyfriend encourages her to break her curfew.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
As alluded to above, Vanessa-centric installments generally have to work in spite of the way her character is written, for the show seems dead-set on using her for its most teachable and preachy stories (the kind of lessons that Theo sometimes gets, but elevates with his unique comedic potential). And yet throughout the course of the series, there are a handful of Vanessa episodes that manage to gain distinction as some of the show’s best (and we’ll see this again next week) — and they’re almost always a result of the way the script uses the other characters. While an episode above was helped by Clair, this one is saved by Cliff, who shares a hilarious scene in the kitchen with Vanessa’s bad-boy date and a pair of red apples. One of the season’s highlights!
07) Episode 112: “Mrs. Huxtable Goes To Kindergarten” (Aired: 01/26/89)
Clair appears on a local talk show for intellectuals.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Carl Lauten & Chuck Vinson
Another episode that throws the bulk of its comedy to Clair, and the always capable hands of the undersung Phylicia Rashad, this is an atypical story for the show, as the primary plot involves Clair appearing on a local morning talk show, where she’s surrounded by three intelligent white men who debate social issues, both past and present. On her debut appearance, Clair gets into a disagreement with one of the disagreeable panelists over the causes of The Great Depression; of course, she turns out to be correct (to the consternation of her new foe), and the producers offer her a permanent spot, which she rejects. Once again, this episode benefits from the use of Angry Clair and for the freshness of the story, which works as a one-time occurrence.
08) Episode 120: “Birthday Blues” (Aired: 03/30/89)
The family celebrates Clair’s 46th birthday.
Written by Carmen Finestra & Gary Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Honestly, this episode is mentioned because it’s focused on Cliff and Clair as opposed to the kids, and there’s an inherent substance here that’s lacking in many of the other entries on this list (even though they might boast more interesting stories and certainly better laughs). However, I won’t pretend that this is a great one either — it’s just a string of gimmicks attached to a thin concept. First we have the stupid “when mom was my age” gag that yields no laughs, followed by a song from guest Placido Domingo (also, no laughs), until we finally come to a musical pantomime with Cliff, Clair, and three cakes that ultimately redeems the whole affair by placing emphasis back on the two of them — where it should (almost) always be.
09) Episode 121: “A Room With No View” (Aired: 04/13/89)
Cliff forces a feuding Rudy and Vanessa to move into the basement together.
Written John Markus & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
My choice for the strongest episode of the season, this offering, like many others, involves a parenting technique that Cliff employs after witnessing the constant bickering between Rudy and Vanessa (yes, that problematic Vanessa). His solution is to banish the pair into the basement, forcing the two to live together down there until they reach a detente. It’s a very funny premise (with a lot of common sense logic thrown in) and it reveals both the strength of the young players, and exactly how these two characters, when they’re allowed to interact solely off other established regulars, generally come across well (something that’s not a guarantee when they’re paired with child guest stars, particularly in Vanessa’s case). Also, both the premise and the script are easily this season’s funniest, making this an unqualified success.
10) Episode 124: “57 Varieties” (Aired: 05/11/89)
Theo wants to go to Egypt and invites his professor over to help convince his folks.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Chuck Vinson
The season finale, this is another one of those installments that isn’t actually great, but benefits from our reduced expectations and the lower standards. Like a few others on today’s list, it essentially appears here due to a singular sequence; I’m thinking specifically of the climactic scene in which Theo’s multi-ethnic professor (Irish, Cherokee, and African American) comes to the house and Theo forces his father to guess the three parts of her heritage. It’s a good opportunity for Cosby to make us laugh and it makes for an interesting episode, because this series very rarely utilizes stories that directly involve race or ethnicity — it’s always there, but more subliminally than anything else — and it represents a novelty for the show. Unique.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Physical,” which coasts on the guest appearance of John Amos and some goofy Cosby gags (that aren’t really motivated), “Out Of Brooklyn,” the episode that gets Denise off the show for the rest of the year and is memorable mostly for some great Rudy-Kenny stuff, “The Dead End Kids Meet Dr. Lotus,” which is only worth discussing here for a memorable scene in which Cliff teaches Theo a messy lesson in the kitchen (if the rest of the episode weren’t so uniformly mediocre, it would have been highlighted above), and “Theo’s Women,” which isn’t without some decently funny moments, but is bogged down by some poor younger players (not including the always comedic Tichina Arnold).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“A Room With No View”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!