Why We Still Love 'The Cosby Show'

Twenty years later, the show is still relevant. Why? No one's been able to re-create the magic.


Believe it or not, it's been 20 years since America last sat down to watch our favorite TV dad and the Huxtable clan in their Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone on Thursday nights. Cliff was the doting dad who dished out "zrbtts" to Lil' Rudy. Clair was always nearby to give that tough-love talk after one of the kids messed up. Theo and Cockroach were thinking up quick schemes to learn Julius Caesar in 24 hours. Denise was setting trends with her eclectic style and jammin' to reggae. Vanessa was somewhere getting on somebody's nerves, (badly) playing her clarinet. Sondra and Elvin were somewhere bickering. And when the family was all together, we'd be treated to Ray Charles' "Night Time Is the Right Time."

Through these and other classic moments in its eight-season run, The Cosby Show showed everyone what it looked like to raise a family on the small screen, and according to TV Guide, "almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre in the '80s." With Bill Cosby's comedic lens, the show's producers' careful attention to teaching without clobbering viewers over the head and a bevy of black cultural references, the show garnered Emmys, Golden Globes and NAACP Image Awards and was ranked the No. 1 sitcom for five consecutive seasons, according to Nielsen ratings. America -- black, white and in-between -- loooved The Cosby Show.

"This is a show with a black American family, but what's important in this show is that our family represents about 90 percent of all people out in the audience," Cosby told Ebony magazine back in 1985. "This show will work to show all Americans that if they really love our children, all children are the same the world over."

The Cosby Show set the stage for shows with black ensemble casts to flourish in abundance on network TV for the next 10 years. Urkel was all the rage. Khadijah, Regine, Max and Synclaire were living the single life in Brooklyn. Martin and Gina provided much comic relief on the dynamics of relationships. There were so, so many family-centered shows, including The Parent 'Hood, Moesha, Sister, Sister, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Hughleys, The Bernie Mac Show and one of the most underrated sitcoms in recent memory, Everybody Hates Chris -- one of the last black sitcoms on network television.

You might think that with a black president, we'd have more representation on the small screen. Cosby can't come up with a good reason for the lack of blacks on television, either." How is it that there are people of color who are CEOs of companies, that are presidents of universities, but there is no reflection of that on the networks? It is arrogance and it is narcissism," Cosby told the L.A. Times. "Even the commercials have more black people than the programs."

What gives?

Where black folks seem to be in abundance on the small screen is on formulaic, guilty-pleasure-worthy reality shows on VH1, MTV, BET and any other network looking for quick ratings. And even in the reality niche, producers are doing whatever they can to liken a show with two parents and a couple of laughs to The Cosby Show. T.I.'s family on T.I. & Tiny: Family Hustle and Rev. Run's clan on Run's House have both been referred to as hip-hop, reality-show versions of the Huxtables.

In 1985, just one year after the show debuted, TV critics were already asking if the success of The Cosby Show could be duplicated. More than 25 years later, as we face the dearth of black-family sitcoms on network television and the lackluster ones mucking up cable television on TBS and BET, we're still stuck.

Reed Between the Lines, BET's first original scripted sitcom, couldn't escape the Cosby comparisons, perhaps because the network was branding it as such, all but calling it Cosby 2.0. However, the show's stars, Malcolm-Jamal Warner -- a Cosby Show alum -- and Tracee Ellis Ross were telling every magazine and newspaper that they wanted their show to stand on its own merits.

"We are in no way looking to re-create that show, but we did want to re-create that universality and positive family values that Cosby represented," Warner told the L.A. Times in November. "Neither Tracee or I were interested in a 'black show.' We are telling family stories as opposed to black stories."