The Cosby Show, Black-ish, and how 30 years has seemingly vanished

It deeply bothers me that we’ve basically erased all of the cultural gains made by The Cosby Show and a well-off suburban black family is suddenly a big mystery again.

cosby_oneWhy write a blogpost when you can steal from others?

Every week, or usually more often, writer Ken Levine, whose television credits include MASH, and importantly for this context, CHEERS, answers question from his readers. From Charles H. Bryan:

“I was thinking today, a little, about THE COSBY SHOW of the 80s. I think if you mention the show to someone who was watching TV then, they’ll say they liked it and think well of it, but it won’t pop up on a list without the prompt. I think people more likely remember SEINFELD, or FRIENDS, or CHEERS as being part of NBC Thursday. I think more people would recall the Keatons than the Huxtables. Do you think THE COSBY SHOW gets the discussion that it should?”

THE COSBY SHOW was one of the most influential television programs in the history of the medium.
At the time it premiered in 1984 there was a lot of talk that sitcoms were an endangered species. That one show changed everything. The ratings were spectacular and no show in today’s landscape will ever have the impact THE COSBY SHOW had. CHEERS and FAMILY TIES only became smash hits because they followed THE COSBY SHOW.

Creatively, however, I don’t think THE COSBY SHOW aged well. And it’s not just because of those sweaters. In fairness, the first year was wonderful. Funny, fresh, and with attitudes that were real. And it had one of the best pilots ever. I show it to my USC Comedy class every semester.

But as the series progressed and Bill assumed more creative control the show became way more preachy. Scripts were routinely just thrown out by Bill so the poor writing staff was churning out material night and day. Not surprisingly, he would burn them out. And the end result reflected that. Some terrific writers were reduced to galley slaves. So you never got the advantage of seeing them at their best.

Today the show feels dated and somewhat overbearing. But again, give it its due. THE COSBY SHOW must go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV.

Jaquandor was “never a big fan of The Cosby Show, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, by any means; it just didn’t light my fire.” I wonder if he were watching those latter, preachier seasons.

Next up, SamuraiFrog, the Midwest blogger who has been helping me (thank goodness) with ABC Wednesday, is rather knowledgeable about the nuances of race vis a vis television. His review of the new ABC sitcom Black-ish is so on target:

I especially get annoyed at the AV Club’s criticism of black shows and movies…

…this morning I happened to catch the first paragraph of their review of the second episode of Black-ish, and I think the reviewer missed the point.

“The biggest concern after Black-ish’s very good and unique premiere was whether the show would maintain its dedication to intelligently remarking on cultural diversity while putting race at the foreground or would it instead fall into the trap of becoming nothing more than a simplistic family sitcom (albeit one that makes the stray reference to a prominent aspect of black culture)…”

I found that comment a bit disappointing, because I think it comes from this sort of thinking that it’s revolutionary in 2014 to have African-Americans on network TV. The sad thing is that that might be true. At the very least, it’s become disappointingly unusual. Network TV has backslid a long, long way since the days of Good Times or The Cosby Show or even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That show was a generation ago. When was the last time ABC actually had a black sitcom on the air?…

I saw some reviewers who were breathlessly surprised at how “normal” and “relatable” the show was, as though it was a revelation for some that a black guy knew his own father and didn’t speak exclusively through gangsta slang. And it’s depressing to realize that those attitudes are what this show is up against.

The AV Club reviewer seems disappointed that every episode isn’t going to be The White Person’s Guide to Modern African-American Culture. But that dehumanizes the characters and turns them simply into avatars of modern blackness and sets “black” as their defining characteristic. That’s not the point. The show can and should deal with race, but not exclusively. There is and should be more going on on this show than the Black Problem of the Week. It’s also about a family. About people. About people who have more going on in their lives than contextualizing blackness for a white audience.

It deeply bothers me that we’ve basically erased all of the cultural gains made by The Cosby Show and a well-off suburban black family is suddenly a big mystery again, and too many white critics can’t relate to it if Dre isn’t trying to get the family to out-black themselves every week. (By and large, the black critics I’ve seen are relieved that the show seems to be going in the direction it’s going in, rather than shouldering the burden of symbolically translating Unsolved Black Mysteries every week.) I think there’s a real social concern in every black form of entertainment being a litmus test on whether white people are “ready” to relate to black people. Apparently we’re never ready!

I appreciated what SamuraiFrog wrote, though I found it quite depressing that we’re having “the conversation” about race and television in 2014 that I thought was largely resolved three decades ago.

While I’m at it, here are two other Cosby Show-related links from Mr. Frog:

*The last 11 minutes of an episode of The Cosby Show, “Cliff’s Nightmare.” “In the episode, Cliff eats a sausage sandwich late at night and, trying to sleep with an upset stomach, finds himself in a Muppet-filled nightmare hospital.”

* His obit for Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014 notes, among other things, that Holder, best knpown to most Americans as the 7Up pitch man, choreographed the season 5 opening of The Cosby Show, which was SF’s favorite title sequence.

Season 5 is my second favorite opening after the season 4 Bobby McFerrin/wedding iteration, but the one Malcolm Jamal Warner least like doing. Check out Celebrating 30 Years of ‘The Cosby Show’ by Debating Four Key ‘Cosby’ Questions. Better yet, check out all of the Cosby Show intros.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

11 thoughts on “The Cosby Show, Black-ish, and how 30 years has seemingly vanished”

  1. I love The Cosby Show…first runs and reruns. Brilliant. I’m a bit odd in that I never really go into Seinfeld or Friends. Saw Bill Cosby’s comedy routine a couple of times in person and my cheeks hurt so bad from laughing! He is truly a master at what he does. I’ve not seen Black-ish yet, but the previews look entertaining. I’m always looking for a good comedy…they are all so lame these days.

  2. I was curious to see some more of your thoughts on what I wrote. As it happens, I’m actually watching The Cosby Show right now (it’s on one of the local antenna channels every weekday from 4 to 5). I always felt the problem with the show was that it slowed down and got pretty dull after a while. There was an episode on last week that really had no conflict and was more or less just an excuse to watch Christopher Plummer, Roscoe Lee Browne and Earle Hyman do Shakespeare. And they did it grandly, but it wasn’t a plot, really. It was mainly the cast talking about how important Shakespeare is.

    It’s an important show, and an acclaimed show, but not a beloved and culturally vital show, it seems. When The Simpsons moved to Thursdays in the same time slot, I stopped watching. It always gave me the impression that The Cosby Show just sort of lumbered on until it was replaced by younger and faster-paced shows, as a new era of sitcom sort of took over. (And honestly, I know they’re popular and still very much a part of the pop culture landscape, but I’ve never cared for Seinfeld or Friends at all.) The Cosby Show today sometimes seems stodgy and old-fashioned in comparison to today’s breakneck pacing.

    I do wonder how today’s shows will hold up in the decades to come.

  3. I caught episodes here and there, and generally I found the show agreeable and funny, but for whatever reason, it just never cracked through to my family’s regular viewing.

  4. I loved it early: the take on the Ray Charles song is classic. Yet by the time the Raven character came by, I had tired of it mostly, yet still watched it, because it was culturally important. AND I love how Bill infused black art and music in the show throughout.

  5. Every time Cliff and Claire had the kids upstairs and Cliff turned on the stereo, Phylicia got that cat-sees-bowl-of-cream look on her face. She has always been a sublime actress, and the fact that the equally sublime Debbie Allen was her sister, well, you know…

    The critiques were interesting. Why should a show featuring a black cast have to REPRESENT AN ENTIRE RACE IN AMERICA? It’s like Latino shows where everyone has to mention frijoles at least once an episode. Booooring. Let’s look at families at families. You don’t see critics taking shots at how “Modern Family” should be more LGBTQ. Oh, yeah, that’s because they are mostly white folks, except for Lily’s heritage. THAT’S why they get a pass.

    I’m supremely disappointed in the backslide of TV into the occasional all-racial-that’s-not-Eurocentricfest and then a bunch of white people with either a black techie or “squint,” or best friend who does the eye-rolling thing. Really? That’s it?

    As far as LGBT, I know a lot more Wills (Will and Grace) than I know Jacks. Jacks don’t have to BE Jack anymore. It’s passe. But that’s just me, who grew up around Wills, Jacks, Cosbys, Redds, Ellens, Phylicias, and yes, Graces… Amy

  6. “Why should a show featuring a black cast have to REPRESENT AN ENTIRE RACE IN AMERICA?” Precisely, when a show featuring mostly white actors is not subject to that pressure..

  7. Fun fact: The Cosby show was the #1 rated show for years in South Africa while the nation was still under apartheid. When it was illegal there to publish pictures of Nelson Mandela, Bill Cosby was the most recognized black face in SA. Plenty of scholarly analysis out there about why that was and the impact of the show on racial politics durning SA apartheid.

  8. [grumblegrumblegumble] “This video is not available in your country.” [grumblegrumblegumble]. Geoblocking is so stupid.

    I watched The Cosby Show every week for years, but wasn’t a regular viewer in later years because I thought they got dull. However, I have NO idea what day of the week ANY TV show was on or what network it was on, not even shows in the pre-VCR days that had to be watched on the day/time they were broadcast (apart from a very few). So, I’ve never been able to join conversations about “Thursday night viewing” (for example) because I’d have NO idea what was broadcast on any given day in any year.

  9. That snippet about black-ish was interesting, because I did not like the premiere at all – I thought it was trying waaaaaay too hard to be about stereotypical black people, and I thought about The Cosby Show, too, because what I always enjoyed about that show was that anything “black” kind of flowed from what we knew about the characters. Cosby brought in things HE liked, not what a stereotypical “black” character would like, and it just happened that he liked black cultural things. I learned way more about black jazz musicians from The Cosby Show than I ever wanted to know, but it didn’t feel like Cosby was trying to educate me about black culture, it felt like Cliff dug jazz.

    The premiere of black-ish was really trying too hard, and it wasn’t funny. I would love it if it became more about that specific family, and if black culture wanders in, fine. Of course, I have way too much other stuff to watch, so I probably won’t see it, but that guy thinking it was “unique” and “intelligent” must have watched a different premiere than I did.

  10. Greg – I agree that the premiere tried too ghard, but the parts of subsequent shows of Black-ish is more nuanced, I think.

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