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, RAVEN-SYMONÉ as Olivia Kendall, and ERIKA ALEXANDER as Pam Tucker.
After a successful rejuvenation at the start of the sixth year, The Cosby Show‘s seventh sees both a major change in behind-the-scenes creative personnel and another attempt to redesign the series’ sensibilities — in a blatant bid for a younger demographic. This turns out to be a painful experience for the show, which despite having just enjoyed its most creatively rewarding season in years, felt the need to not only enhance the series with new characters (as the sixth year did with Martin and Olivia), but also change the series — the way it’s written and the stories it tells. And, unlike last season, the results prove far less than satisfactory, for while last year’s alterations had the effect of bringing the show back to its roots — restoring Denise to full-time, introducing a toddler off of whom Cosby could play, and re-focusing the stories onto the family — this season’s changes are designed to present a version of The Cosby Show that has little bearing on what we’ve seen over the prior six years. Most fans hang this transformation on one primary factor — the addition of Cousin Pam, played by future Living Single star Erika Alexander. As Clair’s relative, who grew up with far less than the Huxtable children, Pam and her entry into this home is meant to evoke a mini-culture shock between the haves and the have-nots, the latter of whom were considered long underrepresented on the series.
Now, I’d like to think I can rationalize the decision to include Pam, particularly the choice to bring her in as a member of the family who comes from a starkly different background, as that should be an automatic guarantor of stories, conflict, and then laughs. But that angle is never explored. Instead, the show uses her for its own ulterior aims. You see, Pam, who is given Vanessa’s room (because Bledsoe began studying at NYU and had her appearances drastically reduced, thus opening up room for another “kid”), was designed to bring a more youthful and urban sensibility to the series, particularly as it was facing a new source of competition in The Simpsons, FOX’s ascending hit, which was scheduled against the Huxtables and provided them their first real threat since Season One. So as much as Cousin
Oliver Pam was meant to create story in the absence of Vanessa, whom — despite some of her VSE stories, we still miss; she appears in eight episodes here, one held over from last season — it becomes clear that Pam is meant to create new kinds of story. For her introduction brings a host of other recurring characters, the most prominent of which is her sassy friend Charmaine, played by Karen Malina White, who’s only used in support of Pam and the stories in which Alexander anchors.
Both Alexander and White are unique actresses with innate comedic qualities, and one can see why they were cast. But they simply can’t overcome the outrageous shortcomings within the show’s scripting, the oddest of which is Pam’s total lack of integration with the other regulars. Instead of crafting scripts in which she must come in direct confrontation with the other members of the household, the series does the opposite — as almost every episode in which Pam appears (10 out of the 26 total) takes her away from the house in a narrative that mostly highlights Charmaine and the other “hip” kids that she brought to the show. As a result, these Pam offerings transition us away from The Cosby Show as we know it to something that might better be called Pam And The Cool Kids. It’s not the series we’ve been discussing these past few weeks, and had this been the show’s concept all along, it definitely wouldn’t have been discussed here. This concept is not only mind-numbingly humorless, but it also represents a pinnacle in terms of blatant audience manipulation (the show clearly wants to skew younger), shortsighted storytelling (she’s too new to anchor stories with other new characters), and worst of all, wasted opportunity (exploring her differences against the others would have been a more effective way to generate fresh conflict). IT MAKES NO SENSE! However, Pam really isn’t around too often, and she’s only one of several issues plaguing the seventh season…
Let me rattle off some of the others: stale stories, mediocre scripts, and episodes that well-utilize only one or two characters (leaving everyone else as filler, if they even appear). It’s worse than we’ve ever seen it before — worse than the Clair-lite Season Three and the painfully mediocre Season Five — because, for the first time, this slump doesn’t feel temporary. (We’ll see next week if this feeling is justified; stay tuned…) There’s nothing of real substance here, even in the non-Pam episodes, because the characters don’t really get to do much together, and as a result, so much of what we see is terribly inconsequential… well, in front of the camera. Behind the camera is a different case, as we should note that this is the final season for Lisa Bonet, who appears in less than half the episodes and parted ways with the series reportedly at Cosby’s behest. (There’s more to the story than we know, I’m sure, but Bonet had been doing her own thing since ’86, and Cosby never appreciated most of her decisions. In this regard; I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.) She doesn’t get to do anything really worthwhile this season, but a loss is still a loss, particularly of another original… Anyway, given all these grievances, I have still picked ten episodes (not easy) that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 154: “The Last Barbecue” (Aired: 10/04/90)
The men and women argue over Martin’s belated bachelor party.
Written by Bernie Kukoff & Janet Leahy | Directed by Ellen Falcon
As one of the few episodes from Season Seven in which the whole cast is in the same space at the same time (well, almost everyone — Bledsoe is notably absent) this installment is instantly benefited by the regular interactions, something sorely missed in most of the other offerings produced this year, where meaningful ensemble work is rare. The script is also one of the year’s more potent, evoking an early season sensibility that becomes a novelty through the year’s (unfortunate) changes. This is my choice for the season’s finest, and although that’s not saying much, I think it does nobly stand for what constitutes a great episode from a bad season — an episode unlike the rest of said bad season. (Also, the grandparents are actually funny here!)
02) Episode 155: “Period Of Adjustment” (Aired: 10/11/90)
Clair’s cousin Pam moves into the Huxtable house.
Written by Gordon Gartrelle & Lore Kimbrough | Directed by Ellen Falcon
Pam makes her debut and unlike all of the other offerings in which she takes a seminal role, the story actually has her playing off the other members of the house, particularly Cliff. As discussed above, this would have been key to Pam’s viability, and the inability to assimilate her into the ensemble is why she ultimately fails as a character. However, in this initial outing, in which the show seems poised to explore the conflicts that arise from her being the “fish out of water,” there exists a promise of potential benefit. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a great episode — but there were places that the show could go. And that’s why this one works.
03) Episode 156: “It’s All In The Game” (Aired: 10/18/90)
The kids are prepared when Cliff goes into one of his lectures.
Written by Janet Leahy & Bryan Winter | Directed by Neema Barnette
This was the only other contender for the year’s MVE and it’s because, like the aforementioned “The Last Barbecue,” there’s an early season aesthetic (perhaps thanks to Leahy) that elevates the material and makes it fundamentally more enjoyable than any of the newer avenues (read: Pam and company) that the series is exploring this season. The climactic scene in which the Huxtable children confront their folks with what it’s like to be a child on the receiving end of their parenting is a real treat, and a window into the familial camaraderie that made the first two seasons of this series so special — and more valuable than other domestic shows of the era.
04) Episode 160: “The Infantry Has Landed (And They’ve Fallen Off The Roof)” (Aired: 11/08/90)
Rudy has her first period.
Written by Gordon Gartrelle, Lore Kimbrough, & Janet Leahy | Directed by John Bowbab
Rudy’s growth has been one of the incidental arcs that the series has casually explored, and this episode ties exactly into this theme, as the character reaches an inescapable milestone in her young womanhood: her period. It’s a surprise to see the series being so frank about this subject matter, as it has typically shied away from such material, but as the characters mature, so do the stories and the storytelling. As with all of the offerings here, I can’t claim that this is a stellar episode (it’s way too VSE), but it does allow for moments of connection between original members of the ensemble, and because there are some laughs, this one becomes a winner.
05) Episode 163: “Clair’s Liberation” (Aired: 12/06/90)
The kids fear the worst when Clair starts menopause.
Written by Bernie Kukoff & Ehrich Von Lowe | Directed by John Bowbab
Although the installment skates by mostly for its focus on Clair, a character who usually engenders stories of a more interesting nature than many of her kids, there’s nevertheless some gold here, primarily from the Huxtable matriarch herself. But most of its enjoyment is more foundational. That is, the premise itself is engaging and it’s gratifying to see the series reject the conventionality and stereotypes that have plagued sitcom menopause since the otherwise hysterical (but not-so-believable) episode of All In The Family, in which Edith has a one-episode struggle with her mood. It’s fodder like this on which the episode knowingly riffs.
06) Episode 166: “Attack Of The Killer B’s” (Aired: 01/10/91)
Pam tries to pick up her grades.
Written by Elaine Arata & Lore Kimbrough | Directed by Art Deilhenn
One of the only episodes on today’s list in which Pam and her group of core friends take center stage, the reason for its inclusion is simple: out of all the Pam episodes, this is the one that most easily mixes humor in with their usually-sappy hijinks. The structure is very thin, and the meat of the episode simply involves going back and forth between the home and Pam’s classroom, where she throws around broadly comedic dialogue with her broadly comedic friends, chiefly Charmaine, whose humorous potential eventually scored her a spot on A Different World. Also, the Cliff/Olivia scenes are delightful, a further display of their growing chemistry. Decent.
07) Episode 168: “Adventures In Babysitting” (Aired: 02/07/91)
Clair plays Cliff in a pinochle tournament while Rudy babysits Olivia.
Written by Steve Kline | Directed by Oz Scott
Employing multiple stories that actually benefit from being paired together — not because they’re thematically connected, but because they’re both too thin to be enjoyed separately — this is an episode that will actually deliver laughs. The story of Rudy babysitting Olivia is another exploration of the latter’s growth and there are some worthwhile moments. However, most of the fun comes from the pinochle match where Cliff and his friend go up against Clair and the friend’s wife, both of whom know all of the men’s “tells” and use this to their advantage. It’s an easy premise for comedy, but in this season of crumbs, I’ll not criticize a meal.
08) Episode 171: “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (Aired: 02/28/91)
Theo tries to get everyone out of the house before a big date.
Written by Steve Kline & Bryan Winter | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Theo continues to get episodes thrown directly to him here in Season Seven, but most of them (like the year’s finale) lack the humor that made him initially one of the show’s ripest characters. This is easily his most rewarding installment of the season and it operates within a framework that we really haven’t seen on The Cosby Show before: farce. In fact, this one almost plays like an episode of Three’s Company (note that John Ritter even guest starred in a miserable backdoor pilot that aired this season), and the variety is actually enjoyable because Warner can handle the material. Now, the pacing isn’t as sharp as it could be, but I give them points for trying.
09) Episode 172: “Home Remedies” (Aired: 03/07/91)
Olivia is depressed that she can’t sing for Cliff’s parents’ anniversary.
Written by Mark St Germain | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Okay, this episode, even more than the two strongest episodes highlighted above, is knowingly trying to revisit the magic of the early years, as the story once again returns to Cliff’s parents’ anniversary (their 55th) and the now requisite musical number. Olivia is actually the star this time (after a debut season in which she had a lot to do, her usage was significantly diminished this year — due to too much Pam and too little Denise), and does the lip-synching duties all by herself. As always here, we’re not dealing with an episode that’s great — heck, we’re not dealing with one that’s close to great — but it’s highlighted because it’s a cut above the rest.
10) Episode 173: “Nightmare On Stigwood Avenue” (Aired: 03/21/91)
Rudy dreams about Olivia’s ability to manipulate the Huxtables.
Written by Lore Kimbrough & Steve Kline | Directed by Carl Lauten & Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Another dream sequence show? Yes, but even though I loathe the gimmick — especially because it’s been done better (like in last season’s “The Days The Spores Landed”) — there’s an increase in both the show’s creativity and the focus on some of the core and already established principals. Furthermore, the rivalry between Rudy and Olivia is a beat worthy of exploration, especially given how similar some of Olivia’s material has been to the stuff given to Rudy at the very beginning of the series, when Pulliam was of the same age. I also must admit liking the soulful Greek chorus — it’s a nice touch (and gives Pam and Charmaine something worthy).
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Return Of The Clairettes,” notable for the guest appearance by Leslie Uggams; it’s musically enjoyable, but way too thin on narrative (and for that matter, comedy).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“The Last Barbecue”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!