Having not learned from the wholesale audience rejections of new shows from Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes this fall, NBC has apparently decided that a third time is the charm. As Deadline reports, the network is partnering with Bill Cosby in the hopes that he can do for the network what he did thirty years ago. Literally:
In 1984, The Cosby Show revived the sitcom genre and fueled NBC‘s ratings resurgence. Three decades later, Bill Cosby is looking to bring some of that magic back to NBC, which has been going though a rough time with comedies. The network has made a deal for a half-hour family comedy to star Cosby. As he did in the ’80s, Cosby has partnered with producer Tom Werner, whose company with Marcy Carsey produced Cosby Show. The new comedy will be built around Cosby, who will play the patriarch of a multi-generational family and, like the comedian’s previous family sitcoms – Cosby Show and Cosby on CBS — will channel his take on marriage and parenting. Cosby and Werner are meeting with writers on the project, which has been put on off-season development track.
I’m not sure Cosby was wrong, as he said in a November interview, that audiences “would like to see a married couple that acts like they love each other, warts and all, children who respect the parenting, and the comedy of people who make mistakes.” But it’s not as if those shows don’t exist on American network television, at present. Trophy Wife is great precisely because of that vibe. Suburgatory can be more cable-style dramedy than actual pure sitcom, but it’s got elements of Cosby’s formula, just divided among different characters. What network television doesn’t have at present is a show that centers on a family of color (cable is more expansive).
My question: why is Bill Cosby — other than his past successes in network television, which have this writer’s editor very excited for his return to TV — the right person to star in it or create such a show at this particular moment? He’s 76, so is he going to play a grandfather whose primary role in the show, as Cosby’s has been in the real world of late, to tell parents who are in the process of raising their own children either that they’re doing it wrong, or how to do it better? Maybe that will work. And maybe Cosby will give a huge lift to the younger African-American actors who end up in his orbit, which I think would be the most important potential outcome of Cosby’s return to television.
But why is putting Cosby at the center of a show, rather even than having him create a show that stars other actors, the best option? As James Poniewozik put it on Twitter, “There needs to be more of an idea than ‘this star, in a TV show again.” And the idea that there’s no one new left to be discovered and made successful has a particular sting to it when it comes to Cosby. Because the number of black male characters on television are so limited, and even more so black men who have families, bringing Cosby underscores a depressing self-fulfilling assumption in Hollywood: that there are only a very small number of black actors that audiences will resonate to.
It’s one thing to say that Michael J. Fox has a particular charm and appeal that’s good to have in the mix in a media environment that’s been able to make stars out of a variety of white men ranging from Jim Parsons to Ty Burrell. It’s another to say that in a network television moment when the closest thing we have to a black father figure is the anxious cop Terry Crews plays (very well) on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that the logical step is not to advance the careers of other actors, and the ideas of new creators, expanding the range of characters and visions of families we see on screen, but to skip that process and go back to Bill Cosby. Bringing back Cosby not to supplement an entertainment ecosystem that is rich with depictions of black family life and the perspectives of black creators, but to stand in for the absence of that richness, feels like an admission of failure, or worse, lack of effort.
I suppose they could have gone an even more culturally homogenous route and hired Tyler Perry, who cranks out sitcoms for TBS and NBC. But surely there’s someone else out there with a pitch aimed at puncturing stereotypes of black fatherhood, especially now that there’s new data that pushes back on those myths, perhaps with a show about a stay-at-home dad. Or a pilot script floating around about a black gay couple raising their children, much like Kordale and Kaleb, the couple whose Instagram photos of them getting their children ready for school in the morning have gone viral.
It’s true that NBC is working on turning another, much younger African-American actor into a sitcom lead: it’s ordered The Office veteran Craig Robinson’s series Mr. Robinson, about a music teacher, to series. It’s not clear how much that will be a family show, though a show with an African-American man in a teaching position is also a huge rarity on television, network or cable, and that alone makes it unique. Maybe the best thing to happen here would be for Robinson to beat out Cosby, in the same way that Leslie Knope has outlasted the legacy white dudes sent to replace her on NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, if only as a reminder that sometimes the rewards for developing new talent and new ideas can be bigger than those from trying to recapture old glories.