Chapel Hill: Opinion

Tracie Fellers: A fictional family I still like to visit

‘The Cosby Show’ starring Bill Cosby aired for eight seasons on NBC from Sept. 20, 1984 until April 30, 1992.
‘The Cosby Show’ starring Bill Cosby aired for eight seasons on NBC from Sept. 20, 1984 until April 30, 1992.

If not for the likes of NPR and ABC, the 30th anniversary of “The Cosby Show’s” debut on prime-time TV – Thursday, Sept. 20, 1984 – might have gotten past me.

In fact, if anybody had asked me when the show premiered, I probably would have insisted it was 1982 or ’83 – when I was still in high school and did most of my TV watching in the den of the house where I grew up, in northern Durham.

I guess that’s because I associate the show with memories of family and a shared viewing experience, a simpler time when the “big three” networks could still draw a truly national audience at 8 every Thursday night.

But although I consider myself part of the Cosby generation, like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and millions of others, when the fictional Huxtables made their television debut on NBC, I was making one of my own, far from home: as a college freshman at Northwestern.

Still, as busy as I was, I became a fan of “The Cosby Show.”

Whenever I could on Thursday nights, I tuned in, charmed by the show’s style, chemistry and writing – and its regular shout-outs (in a soft-spoken kind of way) to black causes and culture.

In watching the Huxtable kids and their parents, Cliff and Clair, I saw shades of myself and my middle-class upbringing. While not as affluent as the Huxtables with their Brooklyn brownstone, my mom, then-stepfather and I lived comfortably in a split-level home with a big backyard, complete with two shaggy, lovable dogs (little Rudy Huxtable, who longed for a dog, would have been jealous).

Theo had his $100 Gordon Gartrelle shirt. In a similar storyline, I coveted (but did not get) a $75 pair of Polo jeans, more as a matter of principle on my mom’s part than because of the price tag. Denise and I both had braces on our teeth during our high school years. And I related to the oldest Huxtable daughter, Sondra, because we were both students attending elite private universities (Princeton, in her case) under high expectations.

It’s no surprise, then, that I found “The Cosby Show’s” reflection of at least some of my realities – unlike anything else I’d ever seen on TV – not only entertaining and endearing, but also powerful viewing. Of course, I was hardly alone; the show ranked No. 1 for five of its eight seasons.

Thirty years later, I still tune in at times on whatever cable channel might be airing “Cosby” on weekend afternoons or the occasional weeknight. So earlier this month when I heard, on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” about a panel discussion on the show’s 30th anniversary at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center, I knew I’d be in the audience.

In a relatively small space that quickly filled up with a diverse group, we watched clips from the show and heard from a trio of academics and moderator Mark Anthony Neal, an author and professor of African and African American Studies at Duke.

Seeing the “Cosby” segments, punctuated by laughter and asides from the audience, paired with conversation about the show from the panelists, made the evening a communal experience. It recalled some long-ago Thursday nights I spent watching the show in dorm lounges, surrounded not only by friends, but also by a bunch of kids I didn’t know, white and black with a few other ethnicities mixed in.

Neal also was a college student when “Cosby” ruled the airwaves, and shares similar memories of watching the show in a parallel setting.

But unlike me, Neal, a Bronx, N.Y., native, was “less than enthused about another Bill Cosby sitcom” when “The Cosby Show” hit the airwaves. Referring to the comedian’s earlier TV series, including “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” and ’70s movies, Neal viewed Cosby as the kind of safe, mainstream humor his parents approved of.

Over the years, others have had harsher critiques of the show, calling it an unrealistic, even harmful portrayal of black life that perpetuated myths about achieving the American Dream – particularly jarring in light of economic and social realities for many blacks in the Reagan era.

I understand at least some of the criticism, but I’m with those who’ve described the show as aspirational, in the best sense of that word.

The Huxtables were fictional, yes. But for me, anyway, there was plenty to admire in “The Cosby Show’s” depiction of marital and familial relationships, in its representation of multiple generations and its celebration of black history, arts and culture.

So thank you, NPR, ABC and MSNBC, for not forgetting “Cosby’s” 30th anniversary, and for reminding me of the significance of its legacy.