By Tyler Lewis
Ever since The Cosby Show went off the air, there has been a constant refrain in black communities around the country that “there aren’t any family shows like The Cosby Show.” This despite the fact that Family Matters, The Parent ‘Hood, My Wife and Kids, Everybody Hates Chris – to name a few – all depicted loving, complicated black families, were funny, and did (to varying degrees) very well with diverse audiences just like The Cosby Show.
But, of course, it’s not hard to understand why people want another Cosby Show. It was a massively popular show that was incredibly, consistently good, the kind of show that just doesn’t come around anymore – white or black. Much of its appeal lay in seeing an upper-middle class black family on television going about the daily work of living and loving together. In 1984, that was revelatory. The other shows I mentioned were about working-class black families and so perhaps that is why their virtues have been unjustly overlooked as black folks endlessly obsess about when the next Cosby Show will come along.
Which brings me to the new Tracee Ellis Ross/Malcolm-Jamal Warner sitcom Reed Between The Lines, a refreshingly assured show of simple, sweet pleasures that premiered last night on BET. BET, Ross, and Warner would like you to believe that the show is the new Cosby Show almost solely because Dr. Carla Reed and Dr. Alex Reed are upper-middle class black professionals with precocious kids.
It isn’t, of course. But not for lack of trying.
Ross’ Dr. Carla Reed and Warner’s Dr. Alex Reed are presented in the very first scene and many times thereafter as just as randy and hot for each other as Cliff and Clair were. Like Cliff, Alex works from home. And Zoe Hendrix’s Alexis is clearly trying to outdo Keisha Knight Pulliam’s Emmy-nominated precocious mugging.
All of this is fine. Par for the course.
But it really is the moments where Reed diverges from its desire to be The Cosby Show that are the most interesting and represent the greatest opportunities around which to build a truly defining black show.
In the first episode, Carla goes a little nuts when a woman flirts with Alex, which plays perfectly to Ross’ ability to do physical comedy and convey tremendous insecurity. The conversation at the end where Alex talks her down is both mature and funny, without being condescending. It’s not at all a conversation you’d see Cliff and Clair have.
And it is particularly nice, after years of shows that feature the crazy husband and his pretty, level-headed, long-suffering wife, to see the roles reversed a bit here and for Ross to be, unequivocally, the lead of the show.
In the second episode, Carla and Alex struggle with the realization that they may not be perfect parents. We learn that before Carla and Alex were married, Carla was a single mother who was going to school while raising her elder twin children. The show wisely allows Carla to speculate how the Reeds’ upward mobility might have caused her and Alex to spoil their youngest child. Definitely not something Cliff and Clair ever dealt with.
These moments are sharply observed and do a good job of making the show its own animal. This is encouraging. No show will be The Cosby Show, and BET, Ross, and Warner would do well to let the show stand on its own merits.
If Reed Between The Lines continues to develop along these lines, it will have no problem meeting that challenge.