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."
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."
On a black network, no less.
So what will the future of black television bring?
Last month, TV One unveiled its plans for its 2012-2013 programming lineup. Three new sitcoms were announced: Belles will focus on the life of a widowed patriarch with three daughters who's running an upscale soul food restaurant (produced by Ed Weinberger, a co-creator of The Cosby Show). Church Folk follows a Los Angeles family who leaves their mega-church and moves down South. The Rickey Smiley Show will be based on the radio personality's life. And he's already making comparisons: "If you liked The Cosby Show and you liked Martin, it's a mix between the two.
BET is picking up a scripted series featuring the second generation of the Wayans clan and a semi-scripted show starring Kevin Hart based on his wildly popular BET Awards sketch, "Real Husbands of Hollywood." TBS said goodbye to Tyler Perry's House of Payne in 2011 but welcomed For Better or Worse, starring Tasha Smith and Michael Jai White. Fox will begin production on its In Living Color remake this month. Reportedly, a major network is interested in picking up First Family, starring Christopher P. Duncan (The Jamie Foxx Show) and Kellita Smith (The Bernie Mac Show), about, of course, a black first family in the White House. And CBS is working on a Martin Lawrence comedy pilot in which he'll play a widowed father of two in the middle of a career switch.
Are the '90s back? Don't hold your breath. It's unlikely that a sitcom centered on a black family will ever have the same prominence on American television as The Cosby Show.
There may never be a Cosby Show reincarnate for the new millennium, and that's just fine by me. Hopefully, Nick at Nite and Centric TV will keep the reruns and marathons on tap for decades to come. And the 25th anniversary DVD box set will aid our nostalgia, too. My kids, and yours, will watch on YouTube, Hulu, Netflix or whatever new-fangled video site the future will give us.
I was only six when the show went off the air, so I can't account for exactly how the show helped change the game for the black family in America. But like many Gen Y folk out there, I still have many connections to the show. One of Cosby's real daughter's name is Erinn. If we were the same age, Rudy and I could've been twins as young girls. I played the clarinet just like Vanessa. (If only Dizzy Gillespie had been my clarinet teacher!) And eventually, it was Cliff, Clair and Denise who led me to my own real-life "Hiiilllllmannn." And it was, as they say, "a different world," indeed.
Today, The Cosby Show has taken on a life of its own on the Internet. If you were paying attention, all of the episodes were streaming on Netflix at the end of 2011 but were back to DVD-only by the beginning of 2012. There's also YouTube, where most, if not all, of the episodes are uploaded. There's F*** Yeah The Cosby Show's Tumblr page, which is full of .gifs from the most memorable moments on the show — from Theo and Cockroach's Julius Caesar rap to an intimate moment between Cliff and Clair to the split second before Clair reads Elvin from head to toe about his male-chauvinistic ways. There's a Denise Huxtable shrine, dedicated to her "incredible style."
So if all else fails with the next black TV show, nostalgia and the Internet will keep The Cosby Show alive, even 20 years after Theo graduated from college. When the series finale of The Cosby Show aired on April 1992, L.A. residents were in the throes of some of the worst civil unrest in American history, after four officers were acquitted of charges for beating Rodney King. KNBC in Los Angeles took a break from its coverage of the riots to air the show's finale, at the urging of then-Mayor Tom Bradley, because, as said in the broadcast, "we need this time, a bit of a cooling-off period, giving us some breathing space — maybe a time to remember what Thursday nights were like before all this madness began in Los Angeles."
Perhaps Mayor Bradley and the KNBC anchors had a point back in 1992. After a good run in the '90s for blacks in must-see-sitcom television, maybe it's time we chill out, take a breather from the madness that is reality TV and remember just how good we had it on Thursday nights. It's only one click away.
Erin E. Evans is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.