Few beloved entertainers have as slippery a grasp on why the public likes them as Bill Cosby, to judge from his new sitcom, Cosby. This time he plays Hilton Lucas, a 60-year-old airline worker recently laid off after 30 years on the job. Hilton is upset and angry about getting the heave-ho, and he takes it out on everyone around him, especially his wife, Ruthie, played by former Cosby Show costar Phylicia Rashad.
As Cliff and Claire Huxtable in the immensely popular Cosby Show (1984-92), Cosby and Rashad teamed up as a husband and wife presiding over a boisterous brood. We appreciated the funny ways they found to be long-suffering, patient parents, always loving but often amusingly exasperated.
By contrast, Hilton and Ruthie live alone in a little house in Queens, New York. (Their grown, law-school-graduate daughter, Erica, played by In Living Color‘s lively T’Keyah Crystal Keymah, has her own place.) Losing his job has turned Hilton against the world, and as the series begins, Ruthie is already wishing that her husband would stop hanging around the house, moping and griping. When Hilton goes on an errand, such as to pick up the cleaning, he gets into an argument with the clerk over a stain on his pants, then stalks home to fume at Ruthie over the ”stupid” kid he just dressed down.
Doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, does it? In attempting an American retooling of the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave, Cosby has lost his bearings. Where’s the beguilingly goofy guy from The Cosby Show, the smiling father figure from all those Jell-O commercials, the dignified cool cat from I Spy? Gone, gone. Instead, we get the poker-faced grump who presided over the disastrous 1992-93 game-show revival of You Bet Your Life.
Cosby is certainly interesting looking: It has what must be the most elaborate set of any current sitcom. The action flows from the Lucases’ living room out the front door onto a meticulously detailed street, with cars and stores and numerous passersby; in the first three episodes, we also see their backyard and attic. There are a lot of interesting places for comedy to occur, but it seldom does.
There’s also a slackness to the writing that’s remarkable for a performer of Cosby’s caliber. Here’s a typical too-long, too-lame joke: ”The day they let me go,” says Hilton, ”10,000 other people were let go. The last time a crowd that size was going anywhere, Moses was in front of ’em.” Add to this a disconcerting tendency to have Hilton make fun of people because they’re ”stupid,” elderly (it’s weird to have a 60-year-old belittling people older than himself for being enfeebled), or foreign (in one episode, a Spanish-speaking man and a Scottish fellow meet with Hilton’s scorn: ”This is English?” he sneers at their accents).
Cosby does have a couple of costars in its favor. One is the endlessly charming Doug E. Doug, who starred in the underrated 1992-93 sitcom Where I Live and here plays Hilton’s daughter’s neighbor. The other is Madeline Kahn as Ruthie’s best friend, Pauline. Kahn gives her dull lines bright, off-kilter readings. Oddly enough, Hilton and Pauline’s relationship — wary, but a little flirty — is more interesting than Hilton and Ruthie’s; Rashad comes off merely tired and fed up.
Cosby may have been going for his own version of All in the Family with this show, and an African-American Archie Bunker would indeed be something to watch — to feel, perhaps, the sting of inverted bigotry. But Family‘s scripts were good old-fashioned gut busters. Bill Cosby clearly wants us to laugh at Hilton’s sourness, and he pulls off an impressive amount of physical comedy each week. Yet he’s refusing to give us the primary pleasure of a good sitcom: a vivid character endlessly revealing different sides of himself. Instead, his Hilton Lucas is a one-note whiner. C-