Why Our Family Will Keep Watching 'The Cosby Show'

Exactly six years ago I walked in my front door after work to my wife’s announcement that she had just ordered Season 1 of The Cosby Show so that we could play it on the hospital TV in all the downtime that goes along with having a baby. As yet we had no children (perhaps that is obvious), and now that my wife has had three fast labors, we are still waiting for the downtime. But she hasn’t stopped buying seasons of Cosby when she finds one at Costco on the cheap rack, and our kids love it.

My wife and I are Millennials–not (as you might suppose from our viewing pleasures) Boomers, like our parents. Our children are unaware members of the newly christened Generation Alpha (2010+). As far as I remember, there never was a period in my childhood when whoever in our home was holding the remote did not linger on the The Cosby Show, sometimes at the expense of what they had sat down to watch. And for a few years in a row, Cosby was the target.

Now Slate, Vox, Buzzfeed, and mainstream media can barely keep up with allegations by more than three dozen women that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them. The level of detail in which they have described their experiences is alarming, and many of those details are plainly disturbing. If they are true, Cosby deserves not merely to have his legacy tarnished after years of iconic family-friendly comedy and entertainment; he deserves prison.

However the mounting accusations influence the court of public opinion, the real courts will rule, possibly numerous times. When they do, how the facts shake out will almost certainly have zero impact on my household’s opinion of The Cosby Show or the frequency with which my family enjoys its reruns. (I suppose “rerun” is the wrong word, not only because we are playing DVDs, but because channels continue to cancel the show in the wake of the allegations.)

The simple reason is that most Americans who grew up watching the show for years on end did not fall in love with Bill Cosby any more than with Phylicia Rashad, Sabrina Le Beauf, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam, or Raven-Symoné.

We did fall in love with the Huxtable family, beginning (respectively to the above cast members) with the mutually loving and respectful marriage of Heathcliff (“Cliff”) and Claire, and extending to Sandra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, Rudy, Olivia, and eventually their spouses and friends.

Is there a difference? If the allegations are true, then the differences are palpable. In a way, the differences are the point.

The Cosby Show‘s presentation of marriage, parenting, and families maturing together has gone virtually unrivaled in the last 20 years, because the creators of the Huxtables managed to portray family not only as it is, but as it should be. Few shows can convincingly walk this line. Hits of the last decade like Modern Family and the brilliant Everybody Loves Raymond enthrall(ed) us because they captured family as it is, satirizing real life without dressing it up much. On the other edge of the knife are Full House (soon to make a reprise) and even the more artful Seventh Heaven, whose episodes sometimes dealt with grave problems but whose solutions were usually contrived.

In the Huxtables, by contrast, you have strong male leadership without chauvinism (and with much deference), feminism without male-bashing, marital fidelity without prudishness, innuendo without obscenity, discipline without abuse, obedience without obsequiousness, affluence without profligacy, privilege without entitlement, professionalism (he is a doctor, she is a lawyer) without careerism, grandparenting that reinforces rather than undermines parenting, comedy without slapstick, and satire without cynicism.

Whatever apologies (or worse) Bill Cosby may owe, these stand separate from a landmark show that was successful not merely in excluding (allegedly) his sordid behavior from its presentation of the world both as it is and as it should be, but also in refuting values that lead to home-wrecking behavior of all stripes.

Why dethrone such a show now, when it is needed most?