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 Kendall, MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER as Theo Huxtable, TEMPESTT BLEDSOE as Vanessa Huxtable, KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM as Rudy Huxtable, SABRINA LE BEAUF as Sondra Huxtable Tibideaux, GEOFFREY OWENS as Elvin Tibideaux, JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS as Lt. Martin Kendall, and RAVEN-SYMONÉ as Olivia Kendall.
Last week, in reference to the mediocre plateau on which the series found itself in Season Five, I foretold of a shake-up that needed to occur if the show ever wanted to once again become comedically potent. (You have to take a risk if you want a reward — always true in television, regardless of era or genre.) Although I was writing with a knowledge of what eventually transpired, it seems that The Cosby Show‘s creative team were thinking exactly what I was, for they decided to launch the sixth season with probably the biggest premise change it ever enacted during the course of its run… so far. As most of you know, I’m alluding to the return of Denise Huxtable, now Denise Kendall, along with a new husband, played by Joseph C. Phillips (who had previously played a suitor of Sondra’s — another character — in a previous season), and a young step-daughter, played by future Disney star Raven-Symoné. Now sometimes these risky maneuverings and late-in-the-game character additions end up backfiring, and instead of reinvigorating a show, only hasten its demise. But The Cosby Show pulls these changes off seamlessly, and even benefits from the risk-taking, presenting a season much stronger than the few prior, and frankly, the most satisfying we’ve seen since the second. With character-driven stories, a focus on the relationships among the main cast members, and scripts that make comedy a priority, this is finally a season about which Cosby fans can be proud.
There are several reasons why these creative developments work. Narratively, with only Vanessa and Rudy left in the house, the addition of three more mouths to feed — including another child — is a source of great consternation for both Clair and Cliff (especially), and from their evident pain comes exploitable comedy. (We’ll see the same kind of thing enacted in the ill-fated pregnancy arc on Married… With Children this January.) Furthermore, although I maintain a belief that Denise’s absences are not responsible for the show’s periodic declines in quality, I absolutely think her presence has proven itself a boon to the series — even when she’s acting exaggeratedly foolish and flighty, an element of her persona that was heightened last season when Bonet’s surprise pregnancy had everyone on The Cosby Show (not to mention A Different World) scrambling to cover. Yes, Denise has changed a lot from the years in which she was a regular, but when an episode can justify her behavior (which is about 75% of the time here), she works wonderfully — humorously, believably, and fundamentally connected to the show’s origins. In other words, we’re glad she’s back — and her shocking return with a husband and kid make for an interesting mirror of the actress’ own rebellious nature.
Also, Raven-Symoné aids the season by already proving what a capable comedienne she’ll become, and while I think the series occasionally runs the risk of making her overly cute (which they often avoided with Rudy, thank goodness), her presence gives Cosby the chance to once again work off a young child, something that he does with miraculous ease. In fact, the moments between these two performers constitute some of the best and most memorable material of the season; she’s never better than she is here. Elsewhere in the house, Clair continues to get meatier material (and you’ll notice that ‘angry Clair’ rears her head more often in these episodes), allowing Rashad perhaps her best season out of the entire run, while Vanessa, Rudy, and Theo maintain the trajectories on which they were headed last season. Rudy gets heavier stories (and is doing a better job handling them), Vanessa gets more teachable moments (but the show is doing a better job of handling them — with the parents), and Theo gets continued growth (in mediocre stories, but many comedic moments). Now, I don’t believe this season is not perfect — the quality isn’t spread evenly throughout, there are a few bombs, and Denise isn’t written as sublimely as before — but I do enjoy Season Six a lot and think its quality extends beyond the re-developing: the scripts are better too. So both the stories and the storytelling are stronger. (And, boy, The Cosby Show really needed this now!) 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 127: “I’m ‘In’ With The ‘In’ Crowd” (Aired: 10/05/89)
Vanessa gets drunk at her friend’s house.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
Here we have the first of two offerings on today’s list that I like to call the “Vanessa is a rebellious teen and educates the kids in the audience about what not to do” episodes. Both of them make this entry not just because of Bledsoe’s consistent rendering of the character (she doesn’t really elevate material, but her reliable performance does mitigate some of the other issues with which many of her stories are saddled) but also because of the moments afforded to the others, specifically Clair. The climactic scene, in which Cliff, Clair, and Rudy(!) teach Vanessa a lesson about drinking by making her join them in the same drinking game that she played the night before is a classic Cosby Show riot. (“Chuck-a-lug!”) It’s a surprising scene and actually one of the series’ most memorable, justifying the sappy story and the moments with Vanessa (and some of her obnoxious friends) that otherwise fall flat. My choice for this season’s MVE.
02) Episode 131: “Shall We Dance?” (Aired: 11/02/89)
Rudy has a crush on a boy that disguises his own feelings by picking on her.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Elaine Stritch makes the first of three appearances this season as Rudy’s teacher, and although she’s a little bit stilted, particularly in this episode, she does engender a more laugh-delivering type of humor — and I’m not just writing this as an admitted fan of the woman. Also, the premise itself is nothing novel, but it is something new for Rudy, and typifies the sort of stories that her character is starting to receive. Rather, this is an outing that finds its worth in the individual moments — like Rudy’s fight with her crush, or Cliff’s attempts to help Rudy, and even more delightfully, the moments between Stritch’s Mrs. McGee and Kenny, who is painfully embarrassed to be dancing with her at the conclusion of their “manners” lesson.
03) Episode 132: “The Day The Spores Landed” (Aired: 11/09/89)
Cliff has a dream in which he and the other Huxtable men are pregnant.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Neema Barnette
The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s “It May Look Like A Walnut” crosses with Bewitched‘s “A Very Special Delivery” for this outstandingly comedic installment that’s predicated — and lets the audience know in the beginning of the structure — as a wild dream after Cliff has a meal too close to bedtime. The premise has Cliff, Theo, Martin, and Elvin all pregnant, and there are a lot of laughs from the gender role reversal gags that the script naturally employs. But the real “meat” of the installment comes in the delivery room scene, where the men don’t deliver babies, as we’re anticipating, but deliver foods. Cliff delivers a long loaf of bread and a two-liter soda. It’s hysterical, and although the episode is one big gimmick, it’s worth it (unlike some other dreams).
04) Episode 133: “Cliff’s Wet Adventure” (Aired: 11/16/89)
Denise invites Martin’s ex-wife over for Thanksgiving dinner.
Written by John Markus & Carmen Finestra | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Admittedly, this is a fan favorite episode that I find to be overrated. I appreciate the long-running gag of Cliff having to go out in the storm to get food for the big Thanksgiving meal that the family is preparing (for the entire cast: all members of the Huxtable family, and non-members like Kenny). I also like the premise in theory, as Denise is finally going to meet Martin’s ex-wife and Olivia’s mother. However, the scene between the two of them ends up being a terrific let-down, for it purposely refuses to deliver the laughs towards which the otherwise comedically solid episode had been building. The two women play the scene earnestly and it’s character revealing, but the dialogue feels forced because there’s no humor in support.
05) Episode 134: “Grampy And Nu-Nu Visit The Huxtables” (Aired: 11/30/89)
Denise panics when her in-laws come to visit.
Written by John Markus & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
Angry Clair returns in this important and humorously rewarding installment that finds Martin’s parents coming for a visit. The conflict comes from information that we’ve actually learned in a previous episode, as Martin’s mother, so he claims, “can’t stand” Denise. This naturally makes her self-conscious when her new mother-in-law visits, and when Denise confides to Clair about what’s going on, Mama is ready to give the woman a piece of her mind. Of course, it turns out that Martin is the cause of all the drama, misinterpreting his mother’s words and her temporary anger. It does feel like a bit of a cop-out, but it makes sense, and actually maintains its needed humor — even if the moment in which a fight seems likely is the episode’s strongest.
06) Episode 135: “Cliff La Dolce” [a.k.a. “Cliff La Douce”] (Aired: 12/07/89)
Cliff has trouble handling the kids when Clair goes out of town.
Written by Carmen Finestra & Gary Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
We’ve seen the “Clair goes out of town and Cliff has trouble with the kids” story before, but because it remains a relatable basis for laughs, we’re rarely disappointed. This particular installment gains points from both Cosby’s fine performance (and it must be noted how consistently wonderful he is throughout the series, grounding the stories and defining its sense of humor), but also for an extended scene between Cosby and Stritch’s Mrs. McGee, in her second — and best — appearance. They share a lightly combative dynamic and it’s welcome to see them engage in a repartee from which this series usually shies away. Also, the scripting is particularly sharp, combining laughs and logic (a needed combo) with an effortless mastery.
07) Episode 136: “Getting To Know You” (Aired: 12/14/89)
Cliff bonds with his son-in-law and Olivia inquires about Santa.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
Holiday shows, particularly Christmas episodes, are a difficult trope because there’s a tendency to infuse an abundance of sentimentality where it’s arguably undeserved. And for a series with a reputation of sentimentality (although, I think it’s not totally warranted, as the show usually tries its hardest to put a laugh before anything else), these installments leave me apprehensive. But this particular offering has a lot going for it. For one, it gives us some much needed bonding between Cliff and Martin, a character who never gets the amount of definition I think he needs, but is nevertheless an amiable presence up against Cosby. Also, this excursion boasts some funny moments for Symoné as she has a lot of questions about Jolly Ol’ St. Nick.
08) Episode 137: “Elvin Pays For Dinner” (Aired: 01/04/90)
Sondra is mad when Elvin stays out late with an old girlfriend and her sister.
Written by John Markus & Gary Kott | Directed by Jay Sandrich
A Sondra/Elvin episode here? I’m just as surprised as you are. Well, maybe not — I’ve always found Elvin to be a comedic addition to the series (even and especially through his chauvinistic origins), and with the right script, Sondra can be moderately welcoming (primarily when she doesn’t push). Unfortunately she’s never as likable as Elvin, even when the story needs him to be in the wrong, and while that’s easily the case here, there’s more humor in her material than usual. (Of course, most of it, as always, comes from the others, like in the brilliant scene she shares with her mom.) Also, I love the subplot involving Vanessa, Rudy, and the old movies. The line about Rudy and Kenny being like George Raft and Ida Lupino always makes me laugh!
09) Episode 145: “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Aired: 02/22/90)
Cliff, Elvin, and Martin compete to see who can make their wife the happiest with a gift.
Written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, & Gary Kott | Directed by Tony Singletary
After a string of classics that preceded a string of “mediocrics,” this installment sticks out as a bright spot in the otherwise good-but-not-great latter half of the season. Sure, it’s very story-heavy, utilizing the old competition premise, which sometimes favors narrative manipulations more than character beats (and laughs), but there’s something to be said for an episode that surprises — as this one does. Not only do we have the twist of the women finding out about the men’s bet and trying to scheme against them, but we also get a wonderful turnaround of the women being unable to remain impervious to the men’s romantic gestures. Lots of laughs, lots of fun — especially in the early scenes with the guys (whose bet is sparked by Theo).
10) Episode 148: “Off To See The Wretched” (Aired: 04/05/90)
Vanessa lies about going out of town for a concert.
Written by Mark St. Germain | Directed by Carl Lauten & Malcolm-Jamal Warner
This is the second of those aforementioned “Vanessa is a rebellious teen and educates the kids in the audience about what not to do” episodes and features a lot of the same girls as the first one. Unfortunately, this outing isn’t nearly as strong as its predecessor, but it’s interesting for presenting a Clair who’s more enraged than we’ve ever seen her. By now, Angry Clair is starting to become a gimmick unto itself, but we’ve never really had it like this, and it’s refreshing to see a television mother actually go to this place of infuriation — something to which every parent and child can relate. Therefore, more than being just comedic, it’s also satisfying, especially because Clair’s anger at Vanessa’s stupidity mirrors our own feelings. Get her, Clair!
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Surf’s Up,” which features some really funny Cosby stuff in the first half but loses way too much steam in the second, “Denise Kendall: Singles Counselor,” in which Denise intervenes between Vanessa and a boy she likes (who has a controlling girlfriend), “Mr. Sandman,” the last appearance of Elaine Stritch and a gimmicky dance-heavy show, and “Theo’s Dirty Laundry,” in which Warner’s Theo gets some of his best material of the season.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“I’m ‘In’ With The ‘In’ Crowd”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
Yes yes yes that is the episode I’ve been talking about. The wretched is prob Phylicia best moment on the show
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It’s an intense performance — motivated, believable, and deserved!
Oh and yes for You coverin Larry Sanders
Indeed — late next year! It was interesting to examine his earlier effort, IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW, coming here in November, which although not as strong as his better known series, is still, I think, equally worthy of attention (and perhaps even more conducive to discussion)…
But lowkey dissapointed that Fresh Prince won’t be covered but it’s good
Yep, just not a fan — wouldn’t be able to do the series justice.
I haven’t had much to offer in response to these posts because I was never much of a fan of The Cosby Show after the first (maybe second?) season, and don’t want to add purely negative thoughts. “Angry Clair” is how I mostly remember her character from the entire series, but I may have a skewed memory, and I never liked the character. The *actress*, fantastically talented, and I loved her on the later show “Cosby” where she played a much softer character. But I remember I found Claire to be distastefully nasty, impatient and judgemental. Not Felicia Rashad’s fault– she always played the character perfectly– I just didn’t like how she was written most of the time. The best moments for Clair, from my perspective, were the quiet scenes with just her and Cosby, where you actually could see how much they loved each other. Too much of the time, otherwise, she was talking down to him if not outright yelling, taking far too seriously what was innocuously eccentric behavior on her husband’s part. (Again, I fully concede I may have a skewed memory here!)
By this point in the run, the 6th season, I was still watching only because it was part of the NBC Thursday sitcom lineup, but still saw just about every show at least once. The introduction of another little girl for Cosby to play off makes sense, he was so good at it, I completely understand why this was done when Rudy was getting too old, but it’s just a modern version of “Cousin Oliver syndrome”– it reeks of creative desperation to me. No doubt there were some funny and charming scenes with the new kid, possibly was on the whole good for the show, but to me, it signalled dramatically that these folks had simply completely run out of ideas and were trying to recapture what had been lost– which almost never works.
But considering that the show remained a ratings powerhouse, clearly I don’t represent the viewing preferences of the majority of the mainstream audience. :)
I do read every sitcom post, without fail! I just don’t have many thoughts to add about 1980s sitcoms that would be anything but depressing to read. :) To me, the 1980s were a real low point in TV comedy. “Cheers” was the only show I really loved which was producing new episodes in the 1980s that I still value just as much today.
Hi, WGaryW! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think your memory of Clair isn’t completely skewered, but it does tend to favor the larger moments afforded to her character, particularly as the series progressed, in which she more often played the “bad cop” parent to the children — not just for the sake of story, but more importantly, for cheaply gotten laughs. Angry Clair, who reaches her pinnacle here, has by now become a gimmick employed to wring comedy from the morality-based teen stories that otherwise wouldn’t play well. This would ordinarily be problematic for me, but I’d rather have the laughs than not. (And I’d rather watch Rashad than, say, Pulliam.)
Additionally, I think this part of Clair’s characterization can be traced back to Season One, so it doesn’t feel as unmotivated as other traditional gimmicks (like when the show tries to trot out Angry Sondra), especially since it’s bolstered by Rashad’s consistent talents. Also, it bears mentioning that once Vanessa leaves the house, Angry Clair is seen left often…
As for Clair’s relationship with Cliff, I think you could only count on a few fingers the moments in which she was legitimately angry at him — that is, angry without any sense of irony or humor — and I think the show always did a good job with the depiction of their relationship. However, I too believe the show didn’t write her as well as they should have, too often relying on the actress’ easy chemistry with Cosby and her effortlessness in playing angry instead of substantive character-based material.
Regarding the Cousin Oliver analogy, I find it much more fitting with regard to next season’s discussion. Unlike Season Six, which felt like a return to the series’ roots (Denise is back, there’s another young child, and a restored focus on the family, etc.), the seventh season is when desperation really makes its presence known in the form of Cousin Pam: a blatant one-dimensional bid for a younger, more urban audience. Stay tuned…
Also, as mentioned many times before, I too find the ’80s less comedically satisfying than other decades, but there’s a lot of stellar (THE GOLDEN GIRLS), impactful (IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW) and funny (MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN) stuff coming before the year ends… and, of course, we’re also going to have a lot of fun next year in the ’90s; check out the Coming Attractions page for a preview!
Very interesting points, and given that I’m relying completely on memories of watching the show when it was in first run 30 years ago, I’m sure your take is the more accurate one. :) I can’t really differentiate the seasons, and have only dim memories of specific episodes, just overall impressions and memories.
I was a big fan of “The Golden Girls” and will be much more likely to have thoughts to add on that which aren’t purely negative– but rewatching it more recently, I was reminded how sharply that series declined after the first season, and particularly after the second. (There’s a “Susan Harris Syndrome” I’ve noticed, where the shows she created were often quite brilliant when she was actively involved with them, but went sharply downhill when control shifted to other folks. Happened to “Soap”, too, but not till the final season!) But I’m sure we’ll talk about this more when you get there!
I haven’t seen much of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”– I remember when it was airing, I was so totally turned off by the critics fawning over the brilliance of its innovation without EVER acknowledging that George Burns had been doing this fourth-wall-breaking humor on Burns and Allen in the *1950s*, I was completely blinded to evaluating it fairly on that basis, I confess. It’s probably worth another shot. “Married. . . with Children”, well, I just can’t stomach at all and never could. I get what they were going for, but it’s not my cup of tea (same with “Mamma’s Family”). So if I stay quiet for those posts, you’ll know why. :)
Well, all three shows I’m hoping will breed interesting discussions! My thoughts on THE GOLDEN GIRLS’ trajectory may surprise (spoiler: I think Season Two is stronger than the first), and my study of IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW is as focused on the future as it is the past; stay tuned…
Most certainly– I’m looking for to reading your thoughts, especially on “The Golden Girls”!
I’m looking forward to sharing them. If I’d decided to shortchange the ’80s here (even further than some may feel I already have), I would have still made time for CHEERS and THE GOLDEN GIRLS. And the relationship between the two — perhaps a stretch, I know — should make for interesting fodder in the premiere entry…
Lowkey as much as I loved Erica Alexander in Living Single you could tell that they were trying to compete with Fresh Prince (which that show mentioned Cosby a lot during the early years) and her acting wasn’t as good as Living Single bit more on her next week
Precisely — they were going after the FRESH PRINCE audience!
There’s an interview I’ve read with Rashad, dating from about the time the series COSBY premiered, in which, talking about THE COSBY SHOW, she recalls that at one point she had to have a talk with that show’s creative staff over the direction they were taking Clair. She didn’t like that the character was being written as being so angry and quick-tempered so much of the time, particularly, she said, when Cliff always got to be the calm, reasonable one. She said something to the effect that at one point they had her yelling her head off every week while he was always the one who got to say, “Now, dear, calm down.”
I gather you’re not a fan of THE COSBY SHOW’s grandparent characters, as they almost never figure in your “Ten Best” lists. Just an observation.
That’s very interesting, that Rashad herself was unhappy with how the character was being written– I didn’t know that! I always thought she was a great actress, but never liked the Claire character (or it may be, based on what Jackson has said, that my memory of the character was skewed by how she was written in later seasons– I haven’t gone back to rewatch this series since it aired, really.) I feel somewhat redeemed in my opinion now. ;)
Hi, Brent! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think I mentioned this in each of the first two posts, but you’re correct, I’m not particularly fond of the grandparents. I don’t find those characters comedic whatsoever (really a missed opportunity too) nor do I think their collective or individual presence does anything to boost an episode’s appeal.
As for Rashad, I think her frustration is completely understandable — not only was she playing the show’s “bad cop,” but Clair was simply never as multi-dimensional as Cliff, and that’s the crux of the problem. Again, I don’t take issue with Clair being overly hot-headed (especially since I think her reputation for such is an exaggeration based on a few particularly memorable, albeit gimmicky, occasions); the issue, for me, is that Angry Clair belies other shortcomings with regard to both the thinness of her characterization on the page AND the problematic stories being given to the kids. These failings were never solved, only disguised by the chemistry between the performers and “justified” by the immediate gratification of seeing her contend appropriately with the kids during their forced VSE (Very Special Episode) lapses in judgment.
This is a fantastic season. So many great episodes. Some great musical moments this season as well. I love when Nancy Wilson and Phylicia Rashad sing “Moody’s Mood for Love”.
One of my favorite moments of the season is Kenny singing in the B.B. King episode. “I gave you seven children, now you want to give ’em back!”
Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’m not so fond of the King episode, but I too love that Kenny moment! Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Seven…