By far the best of NBC’s 75th anniversary specials, “The Cosby Show: A Look Back” will instantly remind anyone who tunes in how important its leading man is to television history. One of the more iconographic series of its time, half-hour was often funnier than anything else during its eight-year run and instantly became a ratings tour de force. No wonder — based on the selection of clips assembled here, Bill Cosby always knew what worked, when to pull back and how to deliver a line. Comedies may have changed — “Friends” and “Sex and the City” are comparatively hard-core — but comedy hasn’t, and, with apologies to Jerry Seinfeld, Dick Van Dyke and Jackie Gleason, Cosby is king.
Having resuscitated the sitcom genre with its bow in 1984, the skein, as Quincy Jones says in the opening parade of admirers, never played the race card, never resorted to profanity and never stooped to the base levels of what we now expect. Instead, the Huxtables were simply nice, witty people, and the household issues and simpler times with which it dealt week after week still resonate now, maybe even more so.
Except for Lisa Bonet, the gang’s all here for this one, and a few guests also turn up. Jones, Adam Sandler, Oprah Winfrey and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs all tell stories of reverence, the thread of which is how essential “Cosby” was to the mainstream; black families hadn’t been represented on TV with role models like Cliff and Clair. The status quo was always “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” where African-American characters were poor and cliched.
Instead of taking a reunion approach full of awkward moments and aging co-stars, project sticks to one-on-ones and best-of moments from Theo, Vanessa, Rudy and Sondra (Bonet’s Denise is M.I.A, almost wiped out completely). The “process” is also detailed: musical numbers, screen tests of some of the actors, Cliff’s sweater collection. There’s even a little section on Peter Costa, the fat, little white kid who always ran out of the house by episode’s end.
Cosby hosts all of this from the Schomberg Center stage in Harlem, where he incorporates standup material that brings to mind his revolutionary concert film “Himself” and his successful books on parenting. It’s a night that brings one of America’s top resources to the forefront, a place he hasn’t been very often since the murder of his son in 1997.
The Peacock has glad-handed its way into viewer homes this month more than any other net in recent memory via a must-see TV reel, a Jay Leno party and an “L.A. Law” telepic. It’s too much, but this special, at least, is rather significant, a testament to the staying power of what could have been just another program.