How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

11
The Cosby Show

Representing Race

CHRISTINE ACHAM

Abstract: Few sitcom families in television history have been as widely loved as the
wholesome, wealthy, black family of The Cosby Show. Christine Acham re-examines
the politics of The Cosby Show in the historical context of the Reagan-Bush era, in
conjunction with the comedic persona and politics of star/creator Bill Cosby.

On April 30, 1992, I tuned in to watch the last episode of The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984–1992). The LA riots had begun the day before, and news coverage of the ongoing chaos was broadcast during the commercial breaks. With the Rodney King verdict and the reaction of African Americans to continuing racism in American society televised twenty four hours a day, why would anyone choose to watch what seemed in 1992 to be an antiquated sitcom about a wealthy black family? I grew up with The Cosby Show and could recall vividly the earliest of episodes, such as when Rudy’s fish dies or when Denise makes a horrible replica of a designer shirt for Theo. While I had not watched the show regularly in years, it seemed appropriate to bid farewell to what was one of the most significant representations of a black family seen on U.S. television thus far. The Cosby Show was the top-rated program on television from 1985 to 1989, beloved by a cross section of the American audience, yet a battle over the meaning of blackness expressed in the program had raged since its debut on September 20, 1984.

Television’s images of African Americans reveal a convergence of factors, including the legacy of black representation in American media, the ideology of the producers, and American social realities. The Cosby Show is a product of this amalgamation. In order to have a more nuanced understanding of The Cosby Show, it is essential to survey the social, economic, and political history from which this show emerged, while remaining cognizant of the comedic history of Bill Cosby and the influence he would have over the creation of the program.

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