Like many titans of any profession, it's often inevitable that at some point into your waning years, the general public may raise a backlash when "things aren't the same anymore." There may be no greater example than the career of Bill Cosby, widely considered one of the greatest standup comedians to ever live, star of some truly fine TV, star of some less than fine films, and all around cultural icon. I've frankly found it disturbing that as one of America's greatest storytellers has grown in age and experienced a life of not just vast success but true tragedy (the murder of his only son), that for younger generations, Bill Cosby isn't the revered sage he was two decades prior, but instead a confused, rambling man telling kids to pull up their pants. Granted, a lot of that might be over generalization, but there is a strong case that Cosby no longer commands the respect he so rightfully deserved. With that said, it was an absolute treat to revisit the first two seasons of "The Cosby Show," one of the most groundbreaking and influential sitcoms in TV history. Re-released by Mill Creek, this two season value pack, offers the debut season in its uncut format for the first time ever, allowing a full viewing experience uninterrupted by obnoxious commercials.
From the memorable opening pilot to the season two closer that sets the seeds for the eventual spin-off, "A Different World," "The Cosby Show," is a fluid masterpiece blending the stand-up roots of Cosby's most memorable material in a familiar setting, all while offering viewers a bold new sitcom family: an upper-class African American. While viewers had seen sitcoms focused on African American's before, the two biggest highlights were "Good Times" a show focused on a family in the Chicago projects, which devolved from a family dynamic to the shenanigans of its breakout star, Jimmie Walker and "The Jeffersons" centered on an upper-class couple. I won't take anything away from "The Jeffersons," as it remains one of my favorite 70s sitcoms, but it doesn't come close to accomplishing what "The Cosby Show" did, and that is present level-headed parents dealing with children who have a real feel to them. Apart from Cosby's trademark facial expressions, when you distill the conflict or underlying problem facing the Huxtable children in almost any episode, the lesson taught rarely feels sappy or contrived and is more often than not incorporated with a sense of natural humor that comes from Cosby's natural storytelling ability.
Even three decades after its debut, "The Cosby Show" feels fresh and vibrant, with only the visual look of its time period to betray its age. The topics tackled remain timeless and only "Roseanne" can take credit for breaking more ground in the family sitcom department. Most of all though, there is a definite passion behind the production of the show and often, when the personal interests of its title character take the forefront, the viewer is treated to some "very special episodes" that are in fact quite special. Over the course of the first two seasons, Cosby was able to introduce a whole new generation of viewers to Jazz music through guest stars including, but not limited to Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Lena Horne. There are a few missteps to be had, notably an episode centered around the family meeting Stevie Wonder; it's a cute diversion, but in the grand scheme of things, not nearly as effective as classic episodes like "A Shirt Story" or "Happy Anniversary" (which itself manages to organically infuse Cosby's passion for music into a key, memorable moment).
I'd honestly be remiss if I didn't at least briefly touch on the cast, which often doesn't get nearly the credit they deserve. Phylicia Rashad is perfectly cast as Cliff's wife Claire, who for fans of Cosby's old standup routines captures some of his best caricatures of his own wife, Camille. Rashad and Cosby's chemistry was so great, they would find themselves paired up again for "Cosby" an unrelated series of the early to mid-90s. Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, and Sabrina Le Beauf all turn in noteworthy performances as the three older Huxtable daughters, while Keshia Knight Pulliam steals the show as the youngest of the family, providing some fantastic interactions with her on-screen father; it could logically be argued the introduction of Raven-Symone as Oliva in the series' latter years was little more than a painful misstep to recapture the wide-eyed innocence of Rudy Huxtable in the series' first few seasons. Last, but certainly not least is Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theo, the well-meaning but often painfully awkward lone boy in the family; Theo's journey as a character over the progression of the series is truly a rarity in the medium and it was very fitting that a series beginning with Cliff teaching a hysterical but down-to-earth lesson in the "real world" to a son at risk of flunking high school, only end with the same son, now a man, graduating college. It's this commitment to life itself that makes "The Cosby Show" an essential series, from start to finish, even at its lowest points; thankfully, though, these first two seasons represent some of its highest and stand the test of time. Watch it and reminisce or better yet, introduce it to someone who may very well have the wrong notion when it comes to Bill Cosby's role in Americana; he's a bonafide legend and "The Cosby Show" is living proof of that fact.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is a definite product of its time as well as cost cutting measures by the studio. The image sports average detail at best, with a slightly muddy colors, which themselves definitely reflect the 80s era at its best and worst. Unfortunately, the "value" nature of this release has seen each season compressed from four discs to two and as a result, there are some minor, but consistent compression artifacts to be found. This pushes the video quality to broadcast TV level at best, offering no boost that might have been had from giving the release some more breathing room. All in all, it's an acceptable transfer, but not exactly what a show of this caliber rightly deserves.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track isn't particularly impressive, nor is it disappointing in any way. The mid-80s sitcom audio holds up nicely with clean dialogue and live audience sounding natural, not washed out or falsely canned. The audio itself is free of any notable defects and sounds a tad better than you probably remember from original broadcasts.
What more needs to be said, it's the first two seasons of "The Cosby Show" in their original broadcast formats. The show remains a high-water mark in not just the sitcom format but also the television medium itself. A slightly less than spectacular A/V presentation is the only downside to this release. Highly Recommended.