Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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, GEOFFREY OWENS as Elvin Tibideaux, RAVEN-SYMONÉ as Olivia Kendall, and ERIKA ALEXANDER as Pam Tucker.
The eighth season of The Cosby Show debuted with the foreknowledge that the show was entering its last, per Cosby’s dictum. Many of the usual reasons were given — I’d like more time to do other things, we’ve told all of the stories I want to tell — except for the one usually tossed out by concluding Top 20 series: we wanted to leave while we were still “on top.” This is because Cosby was aware that his show was no longer as good as it once was (certainly not “on top”), even going so far as to acknowledge that they should have ended sooner. I commend the comic for his honesty and, as evidenced by last week’s post, I certainly agree. However, I’m fairly pleased to note that the eighth season isn’t as miserable as the seventh. In fact, it’s more narratively focused, gives us more of the characters about whom we care, restores comedy to the primary objective, and ends on a classy note (sans an appearance by Lisa Bonet, but I digress…) In fact, while this year is still far from the quality of the first two — or even the comparably radiant Season Six — I don’t have anything excessively critical to express, because not only has it all been said before (too much mediocrity, etc.), but this year is a creative improvement over the last, and I’m always grateful for miracles, no matter how small.
Here’s what you need to know about the final season and why it’s more enjoyable than the seventh. For one, the show seems to have realized that the Pam-heavy installments of last year were creatively uninspired, for although her character (along with Charmaine — who is being groomed to hop over to A Different World next season) still lurks around, she gets fewer stories all to herself, and when she does, they’re neither as forcefully rendered or as isolated from the rest of the cast. As a result, they don’t “stink” as bad. And with the diminished usage of Pam (she only appears in 12 of the 25 episodes — one of which was held over), the season also redirects its emphasis back on the nuclear family. We’ll discuss the kids in a figurative moment, but a more telling sign of the show’s own acknowledgment of its past missteps is the elevated standings of Cliff and Clair, a duo getting material of both a greater amount and quality here than they’ve probably had since pre-maternity leave. I don’t need to tell you how much better the series operates when it allows them to be the focus (as opposed to the kids), but I will note that mini-arcs like the expansion of the house to build Clair’s room or the season-long broken doorbell gag all seem to play to the adults’ strengths, which the show is now once again committed to using with regularity — all part of the year’s restoration of humor as its paramount concern. No more “preaching” (Cosby’s word), just character-driven comedy.
But another one of the beautiful facets of this consciously concluding final season is that the series can explore the growth of the children in ways that might have felt mawkish before, but now feel conclusive and surprisingly smart. While the end of the last year saw Theo get a job teaching at a local community center (an excellent place to illustrate Theo’s evolution, and if used properly, a better way to inject youth in the show than Pam), this season sees the rest of the remaining kids reaching crucial milestones. I’ll list them in descending order of interest. First, Elvin and Sondra get a house — but not before they have to move back in with her unamused parents, a story that naturally, is based in humor. Their arc is logical, occasionally comedic, and actually services the series. Second, the show gives Rudy a permanent boyfriend in the form of Stanley (Merlin Santana), one of the kids at Theo’s center. This expectedly causes problems for Rudy’s longtime friend Kenny (Deon Richmond), who gets so much to do this season that you’d think he was an actual Huxtable. He’s always a funny presence, and most of these episodes, if they don’t get too cutesy, work pretty well. (Interestingly, Richmond and Santana would go on to co-star together again in the 1993 sitcom Getting By.)
And lastly, the eighth season gives an hysterical arc to its now-recurring child, Vanessa — who appears in eight of these 25 episodes due to Bledsoe’s full-time enrollment at NYU — in which she announces her engagement to a man of whom her parents initially don’t approve. And when they do approve, she drops him. I’ll talk more about this story and the episodes below, but the story represents a rare occasion in which Vanessa is both in-character and comedic, a fact that’s certainly aided by the novelty of her presence. So, for all of these heretofore expressed reasons, the eighth season, though not brilliant, is shockingly strong. In fact, pay attention to the honorable mentions — there are a lot of enjoyable moments here. I have, as usual, 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 Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 178: “With This Ring?” (Aired: 09/19/91)
The Huxtables are surprised to meet Vanessa’s fiancé.
Written by Adriana Trigiani | Directed by John Bowab
Season Eight opens with the funniest installment we’ve seen from this series in probably two years, as Vanessa returns home from college with an announcement for her parents: she’s been engaged — for six months — to a man named Dabnis — who’s 29-years-old — and a maintenance man. (Well, the “head of maintenance.”) The comedy is in big supply here as each scene delivers laugh after laugh, from Cliff and Clair’s initial reaction to meeting Dabnis to the family’s awkward dinner, where Cliff is very frank with the young man about their disfavor for him (which includes a delightful garbage pale metaphor). Like the return of Denise and the addition of Pam, this storyline feels like something that will reinvigorate the series, but because Bledsoe is still unable to return full-time, we only get this arc in fits and starts — which is all enjoyable, but never quite as strong as it is here. My choice for the season’s best episode. Easily.
02) Episode 179: “There’s No Place Like This Home” (Aired: 09/26/91)
The Huxtables’ planned home renovations must be put on hold.
Written by Gordon Gartrelle & Janet Leahy | Directed by John Bowab
We’ve seen the idea of Cliff and Clair trying to get everyone out of the house so they can be alone (for the first time in over 25+ years) many times before, and this installment is another extension of this theme, as the Huxtables’ plan to build a recreational room for Clair is put on hold after Sondra and Elvin reveal that they (and the twins, who actually get dialogue this season) can’t move into their new place right away. Naturally, the duo tries to guilt Cliff into allowing them to stay, and naturally, he gives in. It’s nothing new, but it’s all character-driven and ties into elements of the series that have now become part of its identity. Enjoyable enough.
03) Episode 180: “Particles In Motion” (Aired: 10/03/91)
Rudy gets a boyfriend and Theo is attracted to a student’s mom.
Story by Adriana Trigiani & Linda M. Yearwood | Teleplay by Adriana Trigiani | Directed by John Bowab
There are two non-intertwining stories in this installment and while I usually disfavor episodes that use this structure, I make allowances when the plots share a similar theme (which therefore justifies the decision to pair them in a script). In this case, the episode plays with attraction, as Theo fights the chemistry he shares with the mother of one of his poorly performing students, and Rudy is smitten with Stanley, the Dyslexic student whom we met in last season’s generally unfunny season finale (in which Theo first takes a job at the center). Both stories are fun, but the stuff with Kenny, who doesn’t cotton to Stanley, is outstandingly funny. Good laughs here.
04) Episode 183: “It’s Apparent To Everyone” (Aired: 10/24/91)
Sondra and Elvin are getting on Cliff and Clair’s nerves.
Written by Hugh O’Neill | Directed by Neema Barnette
The mini Sondra/Elvin story introduced in “There’s No Place Like This Home” is continued here, as the arrangement is beginning to get burdensome for everyone involved, particularly Cliff and the Tibideauxs. However, the reason this installment earns my favor is for an unbelievably comedic scene where Cliff, while trying to clean, uses the twins’ playpen as an upside-down “fort” (or as Sondra puts it, a “cage”). We understand why he did what he did and why their mom feels differently, but the idea of Cliff’s doing so is riotous and helps to define an episode that would otherwise have been considered middling and perfunctory without it.
05) Episode 184: “The Iceman Bricketh” (Aired: 10/31/91)
Cliff’s dad and Clair’s mom meet Vanessa’s fiancé.
Written by Courtney Flavin, Hugh O’Neill & Adriana Trigiani | Directed by Carl Lauten
Dabnis returns as the Vanessa (or ‘Nessa’, as he calls her) arc resumes when two of her grandparents hear through the grapevine about the engagement and then demand to check out the guy for themselves. The episode’s success is predicated mostly on the strong way that the storyline started out in the exquisite season premiere, and all this episode really has to do is not make any major mistakes. Fortunately, it manages to do just that, but there are two amusing new beats. The first is Cliff’s newfound appreciation for Dabnis as a handyman and the second is Vanessa’s second thoughts once the others announce their approval. (Typical teen, right?)
06) Episode 188: “Two Is A Crowd” (Aired: 12/05/91)
Kenny interferes in Rudy and Stanley’s relationship and Vanessa leaves Dabnis.
Written by Gordon Gartrelle & Janet Leahy | Directed by Jay Sandrich
If you’re starting to see a pattern here with the episodes I’ve chosen, it’s intentional, as many of the strongest offerings in the final year are enhanced by the slightly serialized arcs (as discussed in my introduction for the season). This installment continues the Kenny-Rudy-Stanley triangle by delivering more of the boys’ back-and-forth insult dynamic, which — to their credit — they do quite well, and also further develops the Vanessa/Dabnis story, as she leaves him a “Dear Dabnis” letter and comes back home without telling him where she’s going. Of course, she doesn’t realize just how much Cliff has taken to her ex-fiancé. More fine comedy.
07) Episode 189: “Clair’s Place” (Aired: 12/19/91)
Clair finally gets to enjoy her own room.
Written by Adriana Trigiani | Directed by John Bowab
This is obviously the installment in which Clair’s own private room, in which she can escape all the stresses of being a full-time wife and mother, is finally finished, and as one can imagine, it naturally yields worthwhile material for both Rashad and Cosby. However, I couldn’t really claim that this installment is as comically worthwhile as the majority of the others on today’s list, because it isn’t; rather, this offering achieves a “victory in premise” — in which the story is notable for being enjoyably character-driven, thus elevating its standing. Additionally, one must appreciate the simple construction and the conscious focus on the series’ core players.
08) Episode 196: “Cliff And Theo Come Clean” (Aired: 02/13/92)
Olivia and her friend get annoyed with Cliff’s storytelling.
Written by Adriana Trigiani | Directed by John Bowab
Raven-Symoné’s Olivia never quite got the same amount (or the same quality) of material that she got in her initial season, when both Denise and Martin were part of the regular cast, but she’s maintained a great dynamic with Cosby over these three seasons, and the actress continues to exhibit a keen sense of bold comedy (which would eventually be on full display in her Disney series), and this episode works because of the interactions she shares with her TV-step-grandpa. Also, this episode features some amusing material for Theo and his class at the community center, even though it has nothing to do with the A-plot and feels slightly out-of-place.
09) Episode 198: “Rudy’s Retreat” (Aired: 02/27/92)
The Huxtables can’t figure out why Rudy’s been behaving differently.
Written by Lisa S. Benjamin & Nina Combs | Directed by Carl Lauten & Maynard C. Virgil I
As was addressed in a creatively worthwhile installment from last season, Olivia’s addition to the cast had her taking over the functions that Rudy had previously fulfilled, thus necessitating a change for the latter. This season gives Rudy the story with Stanley (and Kenny, who really does the comedic heavy-lifitng) but there are also moments, like this episode especially, that make it a point to examine the way she’s changed, as all children do as they mature, and connect that to her origins, particularly in the final scene between Rudy and Cliff. Also, there’s a worthwhile subplot as Sondra and Elvin have to declare backup legal guardianship for the twins. One of the most enjoyable installments from the season — consistently rewarding.
10) Episode 200: “Some Gifts Aren’t Deductible” (Aired: 04/23/92)
Cliff tries to do their taxes while Kenny needs help from Stanley.
Written by Courtney Flavin | Directed by John Bowab
The final episode before the two-part finale (which, in case you’re wondering, I find gives appropriate closure but with far too few laughs to be recommended), this offering helps bring two of the year’s main elements to the forefront. The first, which manifests itself in the A-plot, is the ongoing triangle (of sorts) between Kenny-Rudy-Stanley, which for all intents and purposes, concludes here as Stanley helps Kenny with the latter’s new girl. It’s another fine story, although not as funny as some of their prior stuff. The prime reason this episode is here is the Cliff-Clair subplot, which illustrates just how committed the show has become this season to using their relationship for simple and exploitable laughs. Some of their strongest scenes ever.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “For Men Only,” which actually engages a premise with social relevance (a rarity for this series — and worth seeing for this alone), as Cliff does a guest lecture for a group of young black men, “Eat, Drink, And Be Wary,” a humorously crafted excursion that was the lone holdover from last season, and “Clair’s Reunion,” a wonderfully simple outing that features a handful of funny beats (it was the closest contender — quiet and true). I’d also like to mention the strength of Symoné in “Pam Applies To College,” which isn’t great, but has its moments.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of The Cosby Show goes to…..
“With This Ring?”
And, for Christopher, who inquired about my thoughts on the show’s various introductions, I promised I would rank them!
- Seasons Six and Seven: the sixth year’s return to narrative from is matched by a classy opening; held for Season Seven after the mural in that year’s original sequence hadn’t been cleared (see below)
- Season Four: simple and understated; sophisticated without pretenses
- Season Two: the introduction of the dancing idea; simple and not overthought
- Season Eight (and initially, Seven): a reflection of Season Seven’s youthful slant, but not used permanently (due to that mural issue) until Season Eight, when said aesthetic was no longer in play
- Season Three: an ostentatious attempt to outdo Season Two’s original variation
- Season One: dull, unimaginative, and disconnected from the rest of the openings here
- Season Five: bizarre, what were they thinking?
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of The Golden Girls! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!