Decades from now, the surreal image of Bill Cosby being taken away in handcuffs will be remembered as one of history’s most shocking and tragic falls from grace. America’s Dad, the once universally revered funnyman who from 1984 to 1992 led the landmark The Cosby Show to unchartered television heights, was convicted of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand. During its celebrated run the culture shifting NBC sitcom’s beloved Huxtables became the quintessential television family, an especially noteworthy achievement considering the fictional clan was African-American at a time when Ronald Reagan’s white America still stereotypically (and unfairly) viewed blacks through the lens of high crime, welfare and the crack epidemic.
Now the 81-year-old Cosby, who has been accused by an unfathomable 60 women of serial sexual assault, will spend three mandatory to 10 years in a cramped single cell. Dr. Cliff Huxtable is now Inmate No. NN7687. Yes, there’s still the small, but very vocal contingent of supporters of Bill Cosby who view the dramatic downfall of the comedy legend and multimillion philanthropist to countless charities and historically black universities as a racially motivated scheme led by an prejudice, overzealous prosecutor. They point to disgraced yet free white Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein, who currently wears an ankle bracelet as he awaits his day in court for various sex crimes, as evidence of a double standard. "Don’t you understand??? BILL COSBY TRIED TO BUY NBC!!!!"
It’s only when you read some of the names of Cosby’s alleged victims that such conspiracies are rightly placed in their proper small, desperate and batsh*t crazy context. Beverly Johnson, Patricia Leary Steuer, Kaya Thompson, Tamara Green, Janice Dickinson, Chelan Lasha, Helen Hayes, Sarita Butterfield, LiLi Bernard…all from different time periods, different races and social backgrounds. Say their names.
In this era of the #MeToo movement facing a world without Bill Cosby--the same man who ironically in 2001 mocked poor inner-city blacks “with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail”--is not at all a daunting prospect. Yet life without The Cosby Show? Well, that’s more complicated. This is not some tattered argument about how one should separate art from the artist. There’s a reason such an obscenely problematic male celebrity figure like R. Kelly is experiencing a career-ending nosedive. It’s much easier to banish trash solo headliners into the wilderness.
But why should the talented, hardworking actors and writers from The Cosby Show suffer because the co-creator and star of the series was ultimately exposed as a predator? Certainly Phylicia Rashad (Clair Huxtable), Lisa Bonet (Denise Huxtable), Malcolm-Jamal Warner(Theo Huxtable), Tempest Bledsoe (Vanessa Huxtable), Keisha Knight Pulliam(Rudy Huxtable), Sabrina Le Beauf (Sondra Huxtable-Tibideaux), and Raven-Symone should not have their contributions tarnished because they are deemed guilty by association.
And yet The Cosby Show itself has become a casualty of both proven and alleged horrific crimes of Bill Cosby. After the star’s initial April guilty verdict this year, Bounce TV was the last network to pull reruns of series, following streaming site Hulu, TV Land, and Aspire. And the impact has been immeasurable. Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin, the at times comically chauvinistic husband of Sandra, has experienced the collateral damage first hand. The 57-year-old went viral after he was publicly job-shamed as photos appeared of him bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s.
But Owens would not have had to make such a move for his family if it weren’t for Cosby’s mounting legal troubles, which essentially stopped all royalty checks from the lucrative series (to date The Cosby Show has earned $1.5 billion in syndication money). “Yes, it impacted me financially,” Owens told People with public outcry of support growing to deafening levels as acting gigs started rolling in for the veteran thespian, including a series regular role in Tyler Perry’s OWN soap opera The Haves and the Have Nots. “At the time the show was pulled, that did make a difference in our income.”
And yet this is more than just about a check. While it may be tempting in retrospect to criticize The Cosby Show as a respectability politics showcase that seemed too much on the nose with its portrayal of a financially well-off, married obstetrics/gynecology doctor and successful lawyer, it meant the world to black folks who rarely saw themselves shown in such an empowering, positive light.
For Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who has become an omnipresent television fixture since his Cosby Show days (the 48-year-old is today a regular on the Fox medical drama The Residence), he balks at the notion of Bill Cosby’s criminal behavior ruining the legacy of the celebrated show. “I thought that when we all left the show we left with our heads held up high,” he recently told me when asked how he wants The Cosby Show to be remembered. “I’m really proud of the work that we have done.”
And why wouldn’t Warner and his Cosby family be proud? His Gordon Gartrell episode--purple, terrible, asymmetrical shirt and all--remains one of TV’s absurdly funniest moments; a brilliant exercise in comic timing. Denise’s early slacker exploits on the Cosby spinoff A Different World made college life at historically black institutions seem like coolest experience in the world. From the laugh-inducing back and forth banter between Rudy and Bud and a no-nonsense Clair putting Elvin in his knuckle dragging place to a drunk Vanessa getting busted, The Cosby Show remains a powerful and influential pop culture statement.
The once glowing, peerless legacy of Bill Cosby has been decimated, yet another reminder that powerful heroes are more than capable of giving in to their darkest of impulses. There will be no redemption tours for the phony, family-friendly icon. The women whose lives he has destroyed deserve better.
And so do the men and women of The Cosby Show.
Photo by: Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank