The recent news about Bill Cosby hit where it hurts, mostly because "The Cosby Show" really was as good as you remember. I fully sympathize with those unable to decouple Cosby from Dr. Cliff Huxtable, but I found that I could, and the show somehow hasn't been ruined for me in the least. "The Cosby Show" is at the very outer limits of programming I can remember watching from my childhood, and that definitely colored my picks here. As I was about Rudy's age at the time of airing, she and Vanessa were the two characters I identified with the most closely. And I don't think I've ever done a top ten list this lopsided before, with all but three episodes coming from the first two seasons. Picks are unranked and ordered by airdate below:
"Goodbye Mr. Fish" - We bid farewell to the dearly departed goldfish Lamont, via a hysterical bathroom funeral that gets the entire Huxtable clan involved in helping Rudy cope with the sudden loss of her pet. The pilot and the show's second episode, "Mr. Fish," helped set the tone for the series - very much a family sitcom, but smarter and funnier than the old "Brady Bunch" style shows of the previous decade. The family was more interesting, the humor more well grounded, and the parenting far more realistic. It was still television, of course, but the creators were charting new territory here in more ways than one.
"A Shirt Story" - Theo had the best episodes in the early going, because he was such a perfect embodiment of the overconfident, self-assured, and often completely clueless teenage boy. That's not to say that Theo wasn't clever and charming - he was. However, he was also prone to getting himself into situations like the one in this episode, where he overspends on a designer shirt and winds up paying Denise to make him a knockoff - and what a knockoff! It's the performances that really sell the multiple reveals and the escalating silliness, cementing that the younger actors on this show were as important as the adults.
"Independence Day" - The episode where Theo gets his ear pierced to impress a girl. Cliff and Claire finding out about it are plenty of fun, but it's when the grandparents get involved that the episode turns into a classic. Russell and Anna Huxtable don't get enough love, as they're an integral part of some of the best episodes. Here, Cliff feels that Theo's stupidity for the sake of love deserves a lecture from Russell, but things don't work out that way. Instead, we get a trip down memory lane to revisit some of the other stupid things the Huxtable men have done in the name of love, resulting in plenty of embarrassment and family bonding for everybody.
"The Slumber Party" - We're so used to modern sitcoms with their tightly plotted acts and multiple subplots, that it may be hard to remember that sometimes all you really need is to put your headliner together with a bunch of little kids and funny things will happen. In this episode, made specifically for the smallest members of the audience, there's hardly any plot to speak of - Rudy gets to have a sleepover, with her father chaperoning. This provides ample opportunity for Bill Cosby to improvise with a pack of adorable kids and let everyone have a good time. This episode also marked he first appearance of next-door neighbor Peter, whose finest moment would be in...
"The Juicer" - Now here's a typical family sitcom plot. One of the kids does something they shouldn't, in this case Rudy using Dr. Huxtable's newly acquired juicer without permission and making a mess of the kitchen. Trouble and consequences follow. However, the way the aftermath plays out is what makes this so much fun. Sure, Rudy's the main wrongdoer here, but she's not the only one, and the blame needs to be sorted out equitably. I distinctly remember watching this around the age of seven or so, and understanding the situation from the parents' point of view, something I don't think I appreciated before that point.
"Happy Anniversary" - Another conflict-free, plot-free episode devoted to just spending some time with the Huxtable family. This time we have a special occasion - Cliff's parents' wedding anniversary. Dinner and a fancy present are warmly received, but it's nothing compared to the grandparents' (and the audience's) delight at the Huxtables' musical performance at the end of the evening - lip-syncing Ray Charles' "Night Time is the Right Time." More anniversary episodes with similar performances would follow this one, but the original was special. And it's a great example of how the Huxtables were a TV family it was nice to just spend time with.
"Theo's Holiday" - More life lessons for Theo in the most memorable of the series' high concept episodes. I don't think a lot of sitcoms could have pulled off the "Real World Apartments" idea, but all the actors really commit to their roles (within roles), and once you go along with Theo to see how far the Huxtables will take the game, it all pays off in spades. I love that this episode really gives the actors a chance to stretch in different ways, especially Phylicia Rashad. The series would try similar conceits in "Theogate" and the dream episodes, some to great success, but Theo getting a taste of responsibility Huxtable style was the show at its best.
"Can I Say Something, Please?" - What I always liked about this episode was that it shows that Cliff and Claire respect and listen to their children, even when they're clearly inviting trouble. Rudy gets a perfectly fair shake when she brings up her list of grievances - she's allowed to have a later bedtime provided that she can deal with the consequences. And of course she can't, but nobody's smug about it or has to underline the message. It's what kept "The Cosby Show" a cut above the countless imitators that followed it, or even the show's later seasons. And Rudy wasn't just the cute one or the precocious one. She was a real character.
"The Day the Spores Landed" - "The Cosby Show" occasionally had fanciful dream episodes, which were often very silly and didn't really work. One involved Muppets. One involved little Olivia becoming a tyrant. However, I have to admit I got a real kick out of the very weird and very subversive dream episode where Cliff and the other male members of the cast find themselves pregnant, thanks to some wacky alien spores. As Dr. Huxtable and his fellow fathers-to-be deal with their pregnancies, the story just keeps getting weirder and weirder, finally culminating in the most bizarre labor sequence ever shown on television.
"Isn't it Romantic?" - It's all about building up to the last five minutes, the tale of the wooden barrette, and one of the greatest reveals in TV history. I haven't written much about Sondra and Denise, the lovely adult daughters of the Huxtables, or their husbands, since they were difficult for a grade-schooler to really relate to. However, they were a big part of the family, and many episodes revolved around their love spats and domestic squabbles. And things always got more fun when the elder Huxtables got involved. The romantic bet is a pretty flimsy excuse to set up the ending, but when the ending's this good, who could complain?