We couldn't emerge from last week's TV anniversary extravaganza without a look at one of the best and most influential TV programs celebrating an anniversary this month. The Cosby Show premiered 30 years ago, on September 20, 1984, and its influence on television and culture cannot be overstated.
In commemoration of the show's premiere, we've set out to settle four of the most pressing debates in Cosby lore.
1. What is the best Cosby Show episode of all time?
Kevin O'Keeffe: Can a "best episode" be decided outside of what history has decided? If so, the best installment of The Cosby Show is "The Card Game," from season 2. It's the episode where the late, great Roscoe Lee Brown, playing Cliff and Clair's college English professor, joins his former student in a game of pinochle against Cliff's father and friend. It's just a delightful 22 minutes, largely because Cosby, Phylicia Rashad, and the rest of the episode cast have a blast bouncing off Brown.
But I think when discussing "bests," not "favorites," you have to consider historical context. And that means the best episode of all time is "Happy Anniversary." You know the one. The family lip-synchs "Night and Day" together. It's what almost everyone thinks of when they think of Cosby, and for good reason.
2. What was the single best Clair Huxtable moment?
JR: I'm just going to break with regulations here and name two. Actually, two with an honorable mention. Which is just flagrant cheating, but I cannot seriously be asked to write about the great Clair Huxtable, my surrogate TV mom, without giving a shout out to the superb way the woman chug-a-lugs during the teaching-Vanessa-a-lesson drinking game in season 6's "I'm 'In' with the 'In' Crowd." Hit it, big mama!
But my two favorites feature two sides to the quintessential Clair, whose righteousness always had a sense of humor to it. Even when faced with the doofy chauvinism of prospective son-in-law Elvin, Clair was able to reduce him to ashes and then sweep him up and set him nicely back down on the couch.
Notice how the live audience (The Cosby Show was one of the all-time great live-studio-audience shows, where the crowd's reactions were a rewarding, disruptive force) breaks into applause at the mere suggestion that Clair's about to take Elvin out for a ride ("Let me tell you something, Elvin...").
My second moment was one I had forgotten until I had plunged by way down the YouTube rabbit hole. But it's one of the all-time best, from season 6's "Isn't It Romantic?" Cliff finally pulls it together to give his wife a sweet anniversary gift, only his trip down memory lane doesn't match Clair's recollection of the events, and she seethes about the "tacky barrette" he appears to have bought her. Hey, you would too if your husband had confused you with Eunice Chantilly. The backspin Phylicia Rashad puts on the words "tacky barrette" are great enough, but it's her hairpin turn when Cliff's real gift is revealed that shows that next dimension that always pushed Clair to the top of the heap.
KO: I'm glad you cheated, because I absolutely have to cheat, too. Honorable mention goes to Clair and Stevie Wonder's performance of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from season 2's "A Touch of Wonder." It's easy to forget Clair's quietest moments, because she's so damn exciting when she's passionate and angry, but her voice is just lovely here.
My first has to be the "Baltimore" monologue from season 6's "Off to See the Wretched." (There's some discrepancy whether the title is that or "The Night of the Wretched," but I distinctly remember the former.) This is probably the most uncontrolled Rashad ever allowed Clair to get, and that's what makes it so fun. Clair is absolutely off the rails. She thought something had happened to her daughter, and to paraphrase her, now that Vanessa is okay, she's just pissed. The way she says "Wilmington! DELAWARE!" will never leave me.
My second – and, in my heart of hearts, probably my absolute favorite – is her shock at learning daughter Sondra won't be going to law school. The physicality here is so great. When Sondra drops the bomb, Clair's whole façade morphs. Her shoulders arch back. She's in attack mode. And you mentioned the live studio audience being a benefit – the way they can't help from busting out at her "What do you mean you decided not to go to law school" before she even finishes the line. But what seals this as classic is this: "Sondra, you owe us $79,648.22! And I want my money now." Then her eyes bug out, and Cliff has to drag her out of the room, Rashad resisting all the way. It's just masterful.
JR: Can we also, for a moment, discuss Clair's wardrobe for that Princeton scene? Because ... is that a bathrobe? An unfastened Nehru jacket? An early slanket prototype? I want to master time-travel technology just so we can study the precise fashion moment in history that made this happen. Yes, I would bring Nina Garcia with me.
KO: Tim Gunn is concerned about her choices, but he also responds positively to the color. He would advise her to use the Bluefly.com accessory wall thoughtfully.
3. Which was the best iteration of The Cosby Show's celebrated opening credits sequences?
KO: A bit of trivia for you: There is no opening sequence that has every member of the cast. Seasons 6 and 7 get the closest, with both eldest Huxtable daughters and husbands, but Erika Alexander hadn't joined full-time as Cousin Pam yet. However, the original season 7 intro does, in fact, include every cast member.
This one had to be scrapped because of legal troubles, and it wound up being the basis for season 8's intro instead, but if you compare the two, there's more than a few differences. The music is rearranged, Lisa Bonet and Joseph C. Phillips are still regular cast members, and some of the dances are different (notably Alexander's, Tempestt Bledsoe's, and Raven-Symoné's). It's not my favorite, but it's a fun little artifact.
But my actual favorite is season 4's Bobby McFerrin tune. To me, it's the Huxtables at their most elegant. Phylicia Rashad looks gorgeous, Malcom Jamal-Warner's ever-so-slight foot-tapping is impossible not to smile at, and Tempestt Bledsoe's "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" dance, as you so perfectly put it, is delightful. I can't fathom why anyone wouldn't love it.
JR: This was a very tough call for me. The season two opening is iconic, and was made even more so after Maya Rudolph successfully parodied it for Saturday Night Live. But I'm going for the perhaps controversial choice of the season five credits, the so-called "island" version which sees the Huxtables engage in an all-out production number, complete with costumes and choreography, not to mention Vanessa's celebrated (?) inverted-triangle afro. The Cosby Show was the appointment television for my family when I was a kid, and every September, my brother and sister and I would excitedly anticipate what the new opening credits would be. Safe to say, this particular iteration BLEW OUR MINDS.
4. Rank the seven Cosby children in order of best character to worst.
JR: I'm not sure how close we're going to be on this one, but I feel very strongly about this:
- Denise: Not just because Lisa Bonet is the best actor (she is) or because Denise's inherent flakiness has resonated with me more and more as time has passed (it...maybe has), but because Denise managed to be equal parts cool and disaster, without ever selling out either part. She came by that flakiness with an open heart.
- Theo: Tough call between my second and third picks. Theo had a stronger last few seasons, I think. He was the emotional crux of the series finale. And he brought us Cockroach.
- Vanessa: Vanessa nearly took second place simply by virtue of how many great episodes were Vanessa-centric (two of which we've already discussed, re: the Wretched and chug-a-lug).
- Sondra: I know she's tagged as the boring one, but the saga of Sondra and Elvin, from his chauvinism to the wilderness store to their disaster of a first apartment, gave Cliff and Clair so much to play off of in their series-long arc as upper-middle-class parents determined to both give their children the best lives possible and also get them out of the house.
- Cousin Pam: Controversial opinion! I didn't think the later seasons were as big a dropoff as some do, and much of that is due to how well Pam slotted in as the new combination Theo/Vanessa. Yes, the idea of the heretofore unseen cousin shoring up an aging series is rightly mocked, but this actually turned out okay.
- Olivia: All the precocity of Rudy without the later awkward years.
- Rudy: Probably my favorite character when I watched this show at age eight. Now I can't seem to get past what a waste of a character she became after season four or so.
KO: Oh wow. You're gonna hate me.
- Vanessa: She's not likable, necessarily, which is what makes me like her all the more. While Rudy could be precocious, Denise flighty, and Sondra moody, they all had big character moments that redeemed them. Vanessa often ended episodes getting knocked around and told she sucked. The fact that she went on to find my favorite of the Cosby suitors, plus got to take part in so many classic episodes, makes her my far-and-away favorite.
- Theo: Totally with you, for all the reasons you said, except Cockroach was kind of the worst. But I loved Theo throughout the show, and I feel like he was the kid closest to becoming a co-lead – especially, as you said, in the later seasons. And he brought us Justine.
- Sondra: I actually have no idea how Sondra gets tagged as boring. I find her story the most substantial, actually. It was like we got to see an alternate version of what Cliff and Clair were like as kids. And you're right about giving the elder Huxtables much more to do. Plus, their kids were adorable.
- Rudy: You were so harsh to Rudy! You're forgetting her late-series, actually-pretty-worthwhile story about feeling replaced as the baby of the family by Olivia that featured a Supremes-esque Greek chorus. I do hate how she became an entry point for Kenny into the story (which totally happened), but I don't hold her accountable for that. I hope Rudy's doing well somewhere.
- Denise: Lisa Bonet is great, but I couldn't quite get there with her. I didn't understand her motivations a lot of the time – the same woman who wanted to go into the jungle also found a straight-edge like Martin attractive? But there are episodes involving her that I love. "A Shirt Story," where she makes the tragic knock-off Gordon Gartrell shirt, is one of my all-time favorites. Yet I can't bring myself to love her.
- Cousin Pam: Agreed with you that she's better than her current reputation. But I actually straight-up didn't like most of her storylines. I did, however, love Charmaine. Charmaine was spectacular.
- Olivia: If you could gaze into the future, you might think the Raven we got on That's So Raven would be great here, too. But you'd be wrong. Olivia was an irritant, all of Rudy's precociousness but with no actual development. That's so the worst.