Friends and Frasier are among the most successful situational comedies a.k.a. “sitcoms” ever created. In fact, these comedy blockbusters were so popular, the Thursday nights they originally aired on the NBC network were branded “Must-See TV.” This label was extremely accurate because tens of millions of people across the globe tuned in to watch the hilarity of these beloved series.
But before Must-See TV was created, NBC had been dead last in the network race for viewership for many years. The CBS network primetime soap opera Dallas along with Dynasty, its competitor-sister series on the ABC network, had ruled the ratings roost for years with each show becoming cultural icons.
Then in September of 1984, a little show starring comedian Bill Cosby and actress Phylicia Rashad quietly debuted on NBC. Titled simply The Cosby Show, it surpassed all others in the Nielsen ratings to become one of most popular television series in history.
The following are six definitive reasons why The Cosby Show remains the best sitcom ever created:
1. It reversed the fortunes of an entire network
Before NBC debuted Bill Cosby’s family comedy in the Fall of 1984, the network had been dead last in the ratings race for years. At the time, soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty, on the CBS and ABC networks respectively, were the hottest shows on television. Despite numerous attempts, NBC failed to launch a successful primetime soap of its own. Desperate for a hit, the home of the technicolored peacock took a huge gamble on a show centered around the affluent, New York, African-American Huxtable family. The bet paid off. The sitcom immediately catapulted to the top of the ratings chart. Beginning with its second season on, The Cosby Show reigned supreme. NBC had finally found its hit series. Not only were the Huxtable clan ratings gold, but the network also used their popularity as the launching pad for other wildly successful comedies such as Sienfeld and Mad About You – all airing on Thursday night. Must-See Tv was a ratings juggernaut that leapfrogged NBC from third to first place, revitalizing the network for years to come.
2. It revived an entire genre
As stated earlier, during the years immediately before the debut of The Cosby Show, the only programming on television capturing viewer interest were soaps, medical dramas, and police procedurals. There were a smattering of sitcoms on the air, but they were struggling. Former hit comedies such as Three’s Company and All In The Family were already past their heyday. While Cheers had premiered in 1982, it barely avoided cancellation during its first years on air. Only much later in its run did it develop into a hit. The state of the sitcom became so dire, many media pundits declared it dead as an entertainment art form. Enter Bill Cosby. The explosive rise of The Cosby Show was resounding proof the sitcom was very much alive and well.
3. It transcended black stereotypes
The Huxtables were not only black, but well educated, affluent, AND lived in an elegant brownstone in Brooklyn, New York! The matriarch, Clair, was a prominent attorney. Her husband, Heathcliff “Cliff”, was an accomplished physician. They had five children, all of which, save the youngest, eventually went off to college during the series run. Such depictions of black life were unheard of at this time. Critics both black and white, questioned the authenticity of the Huxtables’ privileged lifestyle. These criticisms are a vivid example of just how entrenched racist and limiting stereotypes of African-Americans are in the nation’s psyche. How dare black people be portrayed as holding jobs other than in illegal, menial or blue collar work! How dare black people be shown as having achieved great success in esteemed careers! How dare black people be treated as equal to their white counterparts! How dare black people be college educated! How dare black people be depicted as loving, supportive parents! The Cosby Show dared, and in so doing transcended widely-held racial convictions and prejudices to become a global phenomenon.
4. It revealed then little known aspects of black culture to a much wider audience
What also made The Cosby Show unique was even though it defied racial stereotypes, it never made an issue of the Huxtables being black. They were just a family. However, black culture was proudly displayed each Thursday before millions of people. Viewers were introduced to the music of legends such as Ray Charles and Miles Davis. Novels by acclaimed authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were discussed. The educational legacy of historically black colleges, such as Spelman, were promoted. The country, as well the world, were exposed to facets of black life never before explored in popular media.
5. The show’s centerpiece was a strong, healthy marriage
Phylicia Rashad and Bill Cosby were dynamic as Clair and Cliff Huxtable, a black couple who were very much in love despite being married for decades. One partner was never played as intellectually or morally superior to the other. Clair and Cliff’s union was truly a partnership of equals. Their chemistry together was undeniable. They dealt with each other with love, mutual respect, and laughter!
6. The show was hilarious without ever resorting to buffoonery or minstrel posturing
On the series, you will never see Bill Cosby wearing a dress. You will never witness Phylicia Rashad and the other women of the series shaking their necks. There were no overly exaggerated personalities entangled in completely unrealistic, ridiculous situations. The children weren’t perfect, but they weren’t smart-ass, disrespectful brats either. The brilliance of The Cosby Show was its comedy stemmed from real-world situations almost anyone could relate to, hence its worldwide popularity.
I miss it. Actress Tempestt Bledsoe, who portrayed Vanessa Huxtable, was once quoted as saying there never was a show like it before, and there hasn’t been one quite like it since. I agree, and I think we are poorer for it. While there are most definitely comedies on air today, many greatly pale in comparison. Fortunately, the best sitcom ever made is widely available on dvd and in reruns. If you are unfamiliar with the series, I challenge you to watch it, and not come away with a smile on your face. It’s the enduring, universal appeal of The Cosby Show which will forever mark it as the best of its kind.
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