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

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

Gateway Episodes: The Cosby Show

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

YouTube

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.