Never Watched The Cosby Show? This Is the Place to Start.

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 29 2013 11:41 AM

Gateway Episodes: The Cosby Show

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Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) is very proud of his Gordon Gartrell shirt.

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At 76, Bill Cosby is making a bit of a comeback as a performer. Last Saturday, Comedy Central aired his first stand-up special in 30 years, and he’s touring again. This weekend, TV Land will re-air the new special—plus a marathon of Cosby’s 10 favorite episodes of The Cosby Show.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

It’s a good time to revisit the sitcom, if you haven’t rewatched it lately. If you were around when it aired, you surely watched it at the time: The series was pretty much an instant success, greeted with rave reviews and landing in the top five of the Nielsen ratings in every season but its last.

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But it’s also always had detractors, some of whom regard the show as “unrealistic” in its depiction of an upper-middle-class black family. Yet while the Huxtables may never have “struggled” like the Evans family on Good Times or Fred G. Sanford and his son Lamont, Cliff and Claire never shied away from reminding their children of the value of a dollar when appropriate. “Your mother and I are rich,” Cliff tells Vanessa in a Season 3 episode after she complains about the “burden” of coming from privilege. “You have nothing.”

Such money-related conflicts between parent and child provide some of the best moments from the show’s run. Several of these can be found in the delightful Season 1 episode “A Shirt Story,” which is the place to start if you’ve never sat down and really watched the show. As great as the series generally was, if you pick an episode at random, you may find yourself watching, say, a dull retirement ceremony for the president of Cliff and Claire’s fictional alma mater, Hillman College—or you may stumble on an episode given over to long, tangential comedic bits, like Cliff making an incredibly elaborate sandwich. The show was at its best when finding humor in family dynamics, and “A Shirt Story” is the perfect example.

In it, the sole Huxtable son, Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner), is trying desperately to impress his crush, Christine. At the beginning of the episode, he returns home from the mall to show off the hot new designer shirt he intends to wow her with. He proudly waves around the “Gordon Gartrell” original (it was named after one of the show’s writers), as Cliff smiles appreciatively. Then Cliff asks his son how much he charged to his account.

Cliff has to snatch the receipt out of the box to get the answer: $95. Their ensuing back and forth ends with one of the show’s more memorable lines: “No 14-year-old boy should have a $95 shirt, unless he is on stage, with his four brothers.” It’s a great moment, one that simultaneously acknowledges class differences and the Huxtables’ determination not to spoil their children, while smartly alluding to another black family that “made it” (the Jacksons, of course).

Later, bohemian older sister (and one-time sewing class attendee) Denise (Lisa Bonet) offers to make him the same shirt for $30, and Theo gladly accepts. The results are comically disastrous.

This being an ’80s sitcom, everything turns out well in the end. And the fictional Gordon Gartrell, like Duff Beer, has become part of the pop culture lexicon, bandied about in casual conversation among fans and fashionistas alike. After Season 4, once new, irritating characters were added and episodes occasionally got weirder, The Cosby Show became more hit or miss. But “A Shirt Story” will introduce (or re-introduce) you to what made the show great.