The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Worst kept secret ever, right? After running for eight seasons on NBC and receiving accolades as one of the best TV shows of the 1980s, The Cosby Show is the best Black sitcom ever produced. Building on the strengths of its trailblazing predecessors, The Cosby Show has been credited by TV Guide with “almost single-handedly reviving the sitcom genre” and NBC after ABC chose not to pick it up—big mistake. It’s been over 28 years since the show premiered on NBC, and ABC still has to be salty about their decision to pass. Shows like The Cosby Show—which served as the model for so many modern sitcoms—only come around once. Mistakes happen though; the Portland Trailblazers did pass on Michael Jordan in 1984, coincidentally the same year that The Cosby Show began.
For eight magical seasons, The Cosby Show revolved around the Huxtables, a well-to-do African-American family living in a Brooklyn brownstone. Not only were both parents present, they were extremely successful. Cliff was a doctor and Claire was a lawyer. They had five children: four girls and one boy. It went Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy. All five of the Huxtable children were based on Bill Cosby’s actual children, including his late son Ennis who suffered from dyslexia, providing further inspiration for Theo’s character.
Each of the Huxtable children attended college during the show’s run, with the exception of Rudy, and only because she was too young. Denise followed in her parents and grandfather’s footsteps at Hillman College, though she would eventually drop out to find herself through an alternative path, traveling to Africa and eventually marrying a Navy man. The Huxtables represented a nuclear family with successful parents who passed their values along to their children and pushed them to succeed, even when they fought their hardest against it.
By the end of the series, The Cosby Show had built a lineage of success from grandparents to children that hadn’t been seen before on television, regardless of race. The Cosby Show played a huge role in the lives of all races, so when Jim Carey’s character from The Cable Guy referred to himself as “the bastard son of Claire Huxtable,” you understood and believed him.
In spite of its success—Emmy awards, Golden Globes, NAACP Image Awards and People’s Choice Awards—people still managed to criticize the show. It was called unrealistic; people chided it for avoiding the subject of racism and neglecting the struggles of the underclass. If the only complaints were that the show portrayed African-Americans too positively, then there was nothing to complain about at all.
Did the Huxtables represent every black family? No, but neither did the families on previous shows. Not only did The Cosby Show offer a look into the life of an affluent African-American family, it also offered TV’s first look at the HBCU through Hillman College. This paved the way for A Different World, and set up great crossover episodes between the two shows.
The Cosby Show’s guest appearances were almost unmatched: Stevie Wonder, Senator Bill Bradley, Dick Vitale, Jim Valvano, Adam Sandler, and a very young Alicia Keys, just to name a few. Everyone wanted some of the good-natured success.
And you can’t talk about the show without talking about style, as Cliff’s collection of Coogi sweaters will forever be known as “Cosby Sweaters.” The “Gordon Gartrelle” shirt episode will never be forgotten.
The Cosby Show ended during the L.A. Riots, and holds the crown as not only the best black television show, but one of the best televisions shows ever made. There will never be another like it. There can’t be.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
In the fall of 1990, a skinny kid from West Philly decided to try his hand at acting. As rap’s first Grammy award-winner, it couldn’t be that hard, right? After making a name for himself as a hip-hop star in the ’80s, a guy named Will Smith found himself in a bit of a financial bind. Consistent cash would fix that. Enter NBC, and an offer to star in a sitcom loosely based on his own life and that of co-producer Benny Medina, who, after growing up in a rough neighborhood, moved in with a wealthy family in Beverly Hills. You know this story.
You know it, because you know the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A kid gets into some neighborhood beef that scares his mother so badly she sends him to Cali to live with their wealthy family. There, our hero becomes Public Enemy No. 1 in the Banks’ household, except in the eyes of his Aunt Viv and youngest cousin, Ashley. There’s preppy cousin Carlton, with his fondness for Tom Jones. There’s Uncle Phil, or the Honorable Judge Philip Banks. There’s Geoffrey, the wry butler. These are the characters you remember.
This is a moment you’ll never forget: Will’s biological father, Lou, reappears and tries to develop a relationship with his son. Uncle Phil has never respected Lou for abandoning Will and his mother, and doesn’t want to see his nephew hurt again. When that happens, just as Phil predicted, the embrace between Will and his uncle goes down as one of the most heart-wrenching television moments of the 20th century. You watched Will Smith become an actor, the man who would grow to command millions.
During its six-season run on NBC, The French Prince of Bel-Air was a juggernaut. Viewers learned the theme song without trying. Smith even allowed “Summertime,” his classic track recorded with DJ Jazzy Jeff, to fuel the show’s popularity and vice versa. Hell, the legendary DJ landed a role on the show as Will’s friend, the one whose undying love for Hilary got him regularly ejected from the Banks’ residence.
Love for the ladies was a recurring theme, allowing Will to come across some of the baddest women of the time: Stacey Dash, Tyra Banks, Robin Givens, and Nia Long. Furthermore, the The Fresh Prince had a storied history of guest appearances that we chronicled right here.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the perfect complement and eventual successor to The Cosby Show, as it depicted an upper-class African-American family that wasn’t out of touch with the realities of black America. It wasn’t quite as funny as Martin, but it dealt with a broader range of subjects. That makes it one of the better television shows of all-time—period.
A Different World (1987-1993)
“That’s a different world like Cree Summer’s.”
This reference to the Winifred “Freddie” Brooks character played by Cree Summer is one of many A Different World nods from the college dropout himself, Kanye West.
The Cosby Show spinoff followed Denise Huxtable as she followed in her parents’ footsteps at the esteemed HBCU, Hillman College. Denise dropped out (or rather, was written out because of Lisa Bonet’s pregnancy), and the show shifted its focus to the frustratingly prissy Whitley Gilbert and he of the flip-shades, Dwayne Wayne.
Not only did A Different World show historically black fraternities and sororities at work on Hillman’s campus, it also dared to talk about date rape, skin tone, class struggle, the Persian Gulf War, domestic violence, and the L.A. riots. It was one of the first television shows—black or otherwise—to address HIV and AIDS.
Executive producer Debbie Allen deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the show’s far-reaching seriousness, as she drew on her own experiences at Howard University when creating the world of Hillman.
A Different World’s connection to The Cosby Show allowed for several crossover episodes between the two, but the level of star power went far deeper than that. The list of important greats and soon-to-be-megastars is enormous: Diahann Carroll. Patti LaBelle. Richard Roundtree. Gladys Knight. Jesse Jackson. Heavy D. En Vogue. Whoopi Goldberg. Halle Berry.
Hell, 2Pac even popped up as Lena’s boyfriend from back home, allowing viewers to bask in the the well-documented chemistry between Shakur and his old friend Jada Pinkett-Smith. Lena also came face-to-face with her namesake, the legendary Lena Horne, during the show’s final season.
For bravery of subject matter dealt with and for the premise alone—young black people at college—A Different World is one of the most important (and best) TV shows in hisotry.
Sanford and Son (1972-1977)
The South Central L.A. neighborhood of Watts received a surprising amount of love from TV during the 1970s, with the most coming from Sanford and Son. The U.S. version of the British show Steptoe and Son, Sanford and Son gave black America a slightly less abrasive answer to Archie Bunker. Played by the legendary Red Foxx, Fred Sanford was a wily old coot who constantly insulted others with his quick wit. The most frequent target of his jabs? His son, Lamont, who helped him sell antiques and, well, junk.
Lamont longed to step out on his own and live a life free of his father’s critiques, but his genuine love for his old man—and Sanford’s constant threats—kept him around. It was just the two of them, as Fred’s beloved wife and Lamont’s mother, Elizabeth, had long since passed away. In the show (and Foxx’s) most famous gag, Sanford would threaten to join her in Heaven via a heart attack in a desperate attempt to get his way.
In addition to providing a model for the successful African-American sitcom, Sanford and Son was a smash hit across audiences. Even when Foxx temporarily left the show because of a contract dispute, its popularity never flagged. The show lives on through the character of Fred Sanford, and through every rap song that’s ever sampled the theme.