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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

'Cosby Show' comedy had a serious impact

Sitcom gently delivered star's message

Mention Bill Cosby's name these days, and some folks are more likely to think of the angry old man railing against negligent black parents and their inarticulate offspring than the beloved comedian and actor who, for much of the 1980s, starred in one of the most cherished comedies in television history.

To wit, ''The Cosby Show" finally makes its debut on DVD today, with a four-disc, complete first-season box set. By the time the NBC sitcom premiered in 1984, Cosby was already an established TV icon. He was the first African-American to star in a dramatic series, ''I Spy," in 1965, and in the 1970s, he created the animated Saturday morning hijinks of ''Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids."

Still, few could have predicted that ''The Cosby Show" would become a phenomenon. Loosely based on Cosby's own family, it was the highest-rated show for five consecutive seasons, and remained in the Nielsen top 20 throughout its eight-year run. Nearly everyone, it seemed, could relate to the warm, loving Huxtables -- Cliff (Cosby); his wife, Clair (Phylicia Rashad); and their five children, Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam), and later, Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf). For many, they either represented their own families or the family they wished they had.

Of course, there was so much more to ''The Cosby Show" than 22 minutes of laughs and life lessons. It remains the only TV series with a predominantly black cast to defy all racial and demographic boundaries. More important, it managed this feat while presenting an educated, upper-middle-class African-American family devoid of any shuckin' and jivin' stereotypes.

Until ''The Cosby Show," the primary image of black family life on TV was the Evans family of the 1970s sitcom ''Good Times." Certainly, the Evanses were just as loving as the Huxtables. Yet James, Florida, and their three children lived in a Chicago tenement and struggled mightily every day, whether they were trying to keep food on the table or protecting their kids from street gangs infesting the projects. Especially during the early seasons of ''Good Times," the show was a kind of tribute to the resilience of low-income folks determined to be better than their circumstances, and it fostered the notion that while one might live in the ghetto, the ghetto need not live within them.

The Huxtables were the anti-Evanses. Without ever saying so, here was the golden result of the civil rights movement and the fight for racial equality. Cliff, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and Clair, an attorney, owned a fabulous Brooklyn townhouse. They were like any casually affluent white families on TV, except the Huxtables were proudly black, in a home decorated with the works of such African-American artists as Varnette P. Honeywood and Brenda Joysmith. A weekly totem of black accomplishment, ''The Cosby Show," said Coretta Scott King, presented ''the most positive portrayal of black family life that has ever been broadcast."

More than two decades after its debut, the show's comedy still holds up. As Cliff, Cosby is so natural and easy, it's no surprise that TV Guide honored him last year as the greatest TV dad. Like ''Seinfeld," ''The Cosby Show," in its way, was a show about the everyday nothings of family life, whether it was the death of Rudy's goldfish, Theo getting his ear pierced without his parents' permission (Cliff confronting his son plays like a classic Marx Brothers skit), or Cliff's hilarious complaints that fathers always get lousy gifts on Father's Day.

For some, though, the show may have been too positive. In their 1992 book, ''Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream," associate professors Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concluded that the show's representation of successful blacks was so effective, it distorted white America's perceptions about African-American progress. It allowed, Lewis said at the time, whites to feel ''a sense of self-satisfaction" about race relations. ''White America could look at the Huxtables, watch a black family, and not feel guilty," Jhally told me in an interview at the time. (Research for the book was largely financed by Cosby, a UMass-Amherst alumnus.)

Of course, the show had its shortcomings. The kids were too perfect, and Cliff and Clair, despite raising five children and having demanding careers, never seemed too stressed to listen to a problem or engage in a little frisky behavior. Still, ''The Cosby Show" remains one of the most significant shows in TV history. It also paved the way for other black family comedies, from ''Family Matters" to ''My Wife and Kids" to ''The Bernie Mac Show," though no other show has duplicated its social impact.

For all the complaints -- many of them unfair -- about Cosby's ongoing tirade about the failings of the black community, ''The Cosby Show" should be considered part of the same argument. Cosby has never wavered in his messages about African-American potential, or what happens when its possibilities are undermined. With ''The Cosby Show," he delivered his same vision, not with barbed rhetoric but gentle comedy, a spoonful of sugar that helped his still-potent socio-cultural medicine go down in the most delightful way.

Renee Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe.com

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