Brace yourself for a different Bill Cosby in "Cosby," the much-talked-about sitcom that CBS is banking on as lead-in for its big-name Monday night lineup starting tonight at 8 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).
Despite the return of Phylicia Rashad as Cosby's wife, this is definitely not the Huxtables -- the couple at the center of "The Cosby Show," one of the most successful sitcoms in the history of television.
Hilton (Cosby) and Ruth (Rashad) Lucas look like Cliff and Clair, sound like them and are even fellow New Yorkers, but that is where the similarity ends. It is also where the energy, laughs and tremendous potential for this sitcom begin.
I honestly don't know if "Cosby" will be a ratings hit, though I have some doubts based on the history of similar sitcoms. But, whether or not it succeeds, Cosby deserves tremendous credit for the risks he is taking with audience expectations in trying to create a sitcom and character that connect with the place where many audience members really live.
The most important thing to know about Cosby's Hilton Lucas -- and it is the very first thing viewers are told in tonight's pilot -- is that he is a 60-year-old man who has just been downsized out of a job by the airline where he's worked for 30 years. Unlike the successful and generally contented Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, Lucas is hurt and confused.
"I didn't lose my job," he says angrily. "The job was taken away from me. I know where the job is. I didn't lose it. I go there, and they won't give it to me."
Cosby is a talented enough actor and comedian that he can pause a beat after that speech and get a laugh with a pratfall. But that's powerful stuff about jobs, loss of identity and corporate America for what another risk-taking actor-producer, Charles ("Roc") Dutton, once described in a Sun interview as the "yuk-yuk, chuckle-chuckle world of network sitcoms."
There is a school of thought that says viewers don't want to be reminded of such things when they sit down in front of the TV at night. For every "Roseanne" and "All in the Family" that beat those odds, there are a dozen versions of "Roc" and "Buffalo Bill" that did not.
Many viewers will be reminded of "Roseanne" and "All in the Family" the instant they see the Hiltons' living room. This is not the bright, upscale look of the Huxtables' brownstone (or, for that matter, the polished worlds of "Murphy Brown" and "Cybill," which viewers will see later on Mondays on CBS). This is Queens, with a darker living-room look -- linoleum and area rugs on the floor and nice but decidedly lived-in furniture.
After viewing three episodes, I have come to love "Cosby." Yes, it has a troubled history of rewrites and firings -- such as Cosby letting Telma Hopkins go on the eve of filming the pilot and bringing in Rashad with only hours of rehearsal before the cameras rolled (a fact worth remembering as you watch Rashad tonight -- especially in her scenes with the marvelous Madeline Kahn). Yes, it is easy to joke about its having nine executive producers, including Cosby.
The one other executive producer who matters, though, is Dennis Klein, who also made "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," "Buffalo Bill" and "The Larry Sanders Show."
Klein and Cosby's Hilton Lucas is cranky but capable of love, occasionally foolish but not a fool. He's frightened by what's happening to him and around him, but he's not a coward. He's alienated but deeply tied in his own way to family and neighborhood. Above all, he makes me laugh at things in his life and my own about which I might otherwise be depressed.
Pub Date: 9/16/96