A Show Where the Adults Won


Boston -- At the very end, Cliff and Clair Huxtable waltzed out of their living room, off the set, past the studio audience and on to that place where all good shows go when they die. The Afterlife of Television Reruns.

The grand finale, the much-ballyhooed last episode of "The Cosby Show," was bathed in the warm waters of premature nostalgia. It was soft around the edges, comfortable as an old sweater, just what the doctor -- Dr. Huxtable -- ordered for his loyal audience.

One rite of passage was tied to another. Theo Huxtable was graduating from college. Cliff Huxtable, graying and predictable as middle-aged spread, had seen another child over the thorny divide of adolescence and fully launched.

Mission accomplished. Parental mission accomplished. And, of course, by implication, television mission accomplished.

In some ways, there was always a parallel in the two worlds that Bill Cosby created. Patriarch of the Huxtable household, he was also progenitor of the television enterprise. As both actor and producer, he held to his own standards and ideas.

So this week, those who pay attention to media history may talk about how Bill Cosby saved the sitcom. Those who write about social history may critique the show's role as well in the evolution of racial images.

For many years, the one family that seemed to represent Everyfamily was also black. The father who became the idealized Everyfather was also African American.

He is praised by many for breaking through a clutter of negative black stereotypes. He's condemned by others for producing a falsely positive picture of rich, professional black Americans. He's lauded for presenting blacks "just like whites." And criticized for the same thing.

But those of us who are neither critics nor historians but mothers and fathers of the "Cosby" era, remain most conscious of the other stereotype shattered by this show. Bill Cosby deliberately staged a counterculture revolution against the clueless parent, the feckless father, the out-of-it adult and the in-charge, knowing, smart-if-not-smartass child.

"Cosby" arrived in 1984, just as the two-working-parent family became the norm. He set up shop just as the baby boom generation was raising its boomlet. Parents were no longer the establishment. They were us. And a querulous "us" at that.

As Jay Rosen of New York University put it, "Cosby didn't conform to the absent father image or to the pleading, negotiating, New Age father. In the earlier shows, adults were shown confounded by the child culture. But Cosby knew enough to get the better of the child."

On this show, as Bill Cosby put it himself, "the adults won." They got the better of the children, but for the good of the children.

The messages that spoke to a new generation of parents and children watching this show together, were clear.

Parents could wield authority without being authoritarian. They could pass on values without laying on trips. They could raise kids without losing their sense of humor or self-confidence.

In the afterlife of reruns, some future audience may imagine that the Huxtables were a typical American family. That's no more true for our time than the Father who Knew Best was for the 1950s.

The Huxtables were a television two-career couple -- a doctor and a lawyer -- who always seemed to have enough time for their children. Work formed a backdrop for their lives and their bank accounts, but it rarely interfered with their family life. Most of us squeeze family time more tightly than a 22-minute sitcom in a 24-hour day.

Today, at the end of eight years with the Huxtables, it is confidence that seems the most reassuring and strong Cosby trait. It's a confidence that often feels elusive to parents who raise children with more stress and less certainty in real life than on television. But it was comforting nonetheless.

"Cosby" put an image on the home screen of the families we miss, the parents we admire and the home life to which we still aspire.

It isn't just a coincidence that as the Huxtables go dancing off the family set, a lot of other parents are trying to learn their steps.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad