Who says education can't be fun? Nowadays, it's almost the norm for commercial programming to teach kids a thing or two between bursts of color. Back in the early 1970s, things were much different. One of the first---if not the first---network production to take this new approach was Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1985)...but instead of ABCs and 123s, this live action/animated hybrid dealt with issues like violence, abuse, bullying, fear, junk food, racism, problems at school and relationships. Comedian Bill Cosby initially created the title character just a few years earlier, basing the overweight teenager and his gang on kids he grew up with in Philadelphia; he even recounted a few stories in his stand-up act during the late 1960s. A one-shot special was produced in 1969, eventually leading to the long-running animated series just a few years later. Initially pitched to NBC, the educational series eventually found a home at CBS, where it ran for more than a decade until the final two seasons moved to syndication.
Though most summaries of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids emphasize its educational approach (and rightly so), it's still a lot of fun and holds up pretty well if you have fond memories of the series. The supporting characters were mostly voiced by teenagers, while Cosby used his comedic background to coax lively performances out of them during line readings. Messages were delivered in a subtle manner, whether directly through the characters or a show-ending musical number performed by Fat Albert and his friends (AKA "The Junkyard Band"). As the series progressed and moved toward syndication in the mid-1980s, more serious issues were dealt with after network regulations weren't part of the picture. But there were still plenty of laughs to be had along the way, which made all that learning go down much easier.
Produced by Filmation's Lou Scheimer, the series' distinctive animation style is as much a date stamp as the clothes and haircuts. Very few episodes---usually around a dozen or so---were finished each year, while creative cost-cutting measures were often used to maximize the paltry five-figure budget for each one. Examples include repeated frames and reused footage (usually during walk cycles, supporting character speeches and close-ups), as well as using friends and relatives of the creative team for minor voice roles. Cosby also appeared annually to film multiple live-action wraparounds that framed certain scenes and episodes, rather than showing up on a weekly or monthly basis. This strategy paid off quickly and continued to work; after all, what network doesn't like a frugal show that stays popular for more than a decade? As much as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids' success can be attributed to its educational slant, it's equally important to remember the necessary shrewdness that kept it running for so long.
Having grown up watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids during syndication and reruns in 1989, the series was still reasonably fresh in my memory and thus easier to enjoy. That's not to say that a new generation of viewers will have trouble appreciating what Fat Albert brought to the table...but I'll be honest and say that it's largely a product of the time. Though many of the episodes and situations are based on Cosby's urban upbringing during the 1940s and 50s, the setting here is as firmly entrenched in 1970s and 80s culture as you'd expect. Clothes, slang, technology, music style and more (including the ill-advised laugh track, present during the bulk of this series) will likely be lost on younger viewers. Luckily, its core values and moral lessons are pretty much universal...and with the possibility of a series revival in the near future, it's as good a time as any to catch up with the series that started it all.
Shout Factory's massive new 15-disc boxed set collects all 110 episodes of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids during its original broadcast. This, of course, does not include the initial 1969 special or a trio of holiday specials that have aired since...but as a chronological collection, it's much better than what we've gotten thus far. The rights were previously owned or licensed by Urban Works and Classic Media, who collectively released a few "greatest hits" volumes and the aforementioned holiday specials. As the bulk of this series (also known as The New Fat Albert Show and The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids during its later years) had yet to be released on DVD, getting everything in one package should thrill die-hard fans of the series. It's all too often that classic shows---animated or otherwise---are dangled in front of buyers on a season-by-season basis, and it's even more frustrating when the releases dry up after a few years. Shout Factory's commitment to finishing what others have started is more apparent than ever with releases like this one. This isn't a perfect effort by any means, but its collectively good intentions help to make up for a handful of supplemental shortcomings.
The 15-disc collection is tastefully packaged in practical, multi-hubbed keepcases adorned with clean, attractive artwork. The episodes are also organized smartly, defying the series' sporadic, confusing broadcast schedule as the years went on. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids even looks and sounds a little better than expected, though a lack of bonus features will make the price tag sting just a little more. Overall, though, there's a lot to like about what Shout Factory has accomplished here, as they've truly done the right thing by offering the complete series up front. With any luck, they might even teach a lesson to other studios in the process: basic, respectful treatment should be standard for TV on DVD.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
I honestly wasn't expecting much from this low-budget classic series, but it generally looks solid overall. Colors are nicely saturated, line detail is good, dirt and debris are kept to a minimum and there aren't any major digital problems along the way. Still, a few minor hiccups keep this collection from scoring higher, including minor interlacing issues, slight banding and a few stray compression artifacts. I'd imagine that most fans of Fat Albert should be pleased with how this set looks, though it's not a perfect effort.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
The audio also remains slightly above average, especially considering the series' age and low budget. Presented in the original Dolby Digital Mono, these dialogue-driven adventures sound relatively crisp and clear overall. The music cues and sounds effects are limited to a nostalgically "thin" weight, but anyone familiar with material from this era should know what to expect. Bottom line: everything sounds fine and nothing fights for attention. Unfortunately, optional subtitles or Closed Captions are not included.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the static menu designs are easy to navigate and load quickly. Each series is housed in one or more slim, multi-hubbed clear keepcases (five total) with attractive artwork. These five keepcases are tucked inside a sturdy outer box; also included is a brief insert booklet with episode listings and a short essay by educational consultant Gordon Berry, Ed.D. Oddly enough, the episode listings are not printed anywhere on the individual cases, which would have been a lot more convenient (and probably a little more cost-effective). Still, a tasteful and effecient packaging job that won't lean to scratched discs.
Just one, but it's a new Retrospective Documentary
(480p, 39m) featuring creator Bill Cosby, educational consultant Gordon Berry and members of the production team. Unfortunately, this is a bit too slight for its own good, as topics include the series' educational ambitions, character summaries and the like. In fact, change the words to present tense and you might think this was just an EPK. I'd have preferred a more in-depth look at the series' legacy or the subtle differences between all three incarnations. Still, it's good to have something
here, especially since some fans may not realize just how many new elements Fat Albert
originally brought to the table. It's definitely worth a look, but once is probably enough.
Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids: The Complete Series may not appeal to a new generation of viewers, but those old enough to remember it should enjoy everything it brings to the table. Originally airing under three different names, the popular animated franchise remained a fixture of Saturday morning TV for over a decade. Shout Factory's whopping 15-disc boxed set herds together all 110 episodes, while the decent A/V presentation offers more of an incentive than the lackluster documentary. Even so, Shout deserves credit for releasing Fat Albert in its entirety, as I'd imagine any die-hard fans will be eager to pick this up at any price...and at less than $8 per disc, it's not a bad deal. It's Recommended for those with fond memories of the series, though new or casual fans should obviously dip their toes in the water first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.