My favorite episode – ‘The Cosby Show’ – “Birthday Blues”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

The Cosby Show has become a symbol of 80s-era multiculturalism and a vehicle for star Bill Cosby and his pioneering comedy. His work was seen as revolutionary because instead of overtly political material, Cosby found the humor in everyday mundane stuff like children, growing up, family, marriage…As successful doctor Heathcliff Huxtable, Cosby created the perfect show to showcase his brand of comfortable comedy. The show was confrontational because it upended expectations of how black people should be represented on television: save for Julia or The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show was the first show to defy stereotypes of black people – on Cosby, the family unit is complete, and dad’s a doctor, mom’s a lawyer, and race never intrudes – instead, the show coasted on a genial tone. Often the writers would simply pair Cosby off with a small child and let his ace improvisational skills run wild, while he entertained the tots around him.

Because the show lasted almost a decade, it like every other show on television, aged and the writers had to confront the issues of age. In the fifth season, Phylicia Rashad got a rare chance to be the star of an episode, “Birthday Blues” in which her lawyer mom, Clair celebrated her 46th birthday. There are a lot of things that this episode did to switch up its formula, namely that the kids weren’t going to be super-cute and though Cosby mugged and dominated, the focus was on Rashad.

The show dealt with age and more importantly how women faced age. Now, because it’s The Cosby Show, nothing approached gritty realism, and though Clair was facing middle age, she did so in the comfort of her wealthy circumstance. Cliff is his usual blend of goofy obliviousness coupled with genuine love. Cliff’s the ideal husband and father who doles out his life lessons with a dose of smiley mugging and his witty rambling stories (that always felt very free-form).

In celebrating his wife’s birthday, Cliff does some gentle needling of her age. He warbles a mean little ditty in which he improvised lyrics like “Be kind to your old ragged wife/for she sags and she bags and she sputters” to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The kids get into the act too – Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam), Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe), and Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) do a bit, “When I Was Mom’s Age” in which each child announces trivia from when Clair was their respective ages. It all got a hearty laugh, especially when seeing the trio done up in midcentury period drag. Cliff, then would ask each kid what the price of a home was and how much cabbage costs (slacker Rudy who didn’t do her homework said, “Cabbage? There was no cabbage”). The other cool thing about the sequence was that the kids performed old dances, including the Twist and an apparently shoddy version of the Stroll, which Clair quickly found lacking and schooled them with an expert rendition herself (alongside guest star Denise Nicholas who plays Clair’s girlfriend Lorraine).

Because The Cosby Show wasn’t a flawless show, even when it’s at its best, there are still some low moments: in “Birthday Blues” we’re forced to go through some old-fashioned sexism and misogyny in the beauty parlor scene, where Clair and Lorraine go for some birthday makeovers. Instead of simply getting their hair done, they indulge in some regressive bitchery, and the writers – Carmen Finestra and Gary Kott – let Clair and Lorraine get all mean girls with an acquaintance, a beautiful – if tightly-pulled woman – who is a figure of derision because she dates younger men and is apparently addicted to plastic surgery. The Cosby Show often has Clair deliver feminist monologues, particularly when someone blunders with a sexist comment, so it’s egregious that they have the character gleefully skewer a woman for doing her thing, simply because it’s not Clair’s thing…Another issue was the random appearance of opera legend Placido Domingo as Clair’s doctor friend who serenades her with a corny version of “Besame Mucho.” The show loved to have iconic faces stroll into the famous Huxtable brownstone as various family friends and distant relatives.

But this scene is just a momentary blip in a funny episode. Rashad is an underrated actress with rarely-used comedic chops. Her beauty and her natural hateur often works against her, and her regal bearing can come off as steely and cold. But she had an incredible chemistry with Cosby – and they played off each other beautifully. I often assumed that when they played around with each other it was largely improvised (at least on his end). So, letting Rashad anchor an episode was generous of Cosby. There’s a lovely moment when the two perform a duet of sorts – while jazzy music is playing, Cliff convinces Clair to abandon her diet by marching into the living room from the kitchen bringing in sinfully sweet white cakes. Initially Clair is reserved, but eventually gives in and by the end of the sequence the two are maxing out on cake with white frosting covering their faces.

As the show aged, Cosby, perhaps stung by accusations that it wasn’t “real” enough brought in real world issues – or at least he brought in weightier subjects to mature the program: Rudy got her period, Clair went through menopause, and perhaps in an extremely condescending move, a cousin moves into the Huxtable household from the inner city. What I liked about “Birthday Blues” is that it was gentle and funny, but didn’t overdose on the sugary, cutesy stuff that the show loved.

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Filed under Comedy, DVD, Sitcom, Television, Writing

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