I grew up in the ‘80s and distinctly recall the changing media landscape and the economic fracturing of TV and cable between the haves and have nots. My family was in the latter category, and every time I went to somebody’s house who had cable, there was an immediate, unspoken recognition of their economic superiority. (“They get to watch movies without commercials!”)
Consequently, I resonated with Gray’s article that considered the reorganization of the TV industry in the ‘80s amid the competition of cable, VHS, video games, and the constant presence of the Reagan Era neoconservative cultural agenda (also well framed by Christine Acham in her article on “The Cosby Show”). Gray argues that the instability of the industry siphoned off the white, upper class audiences and necessitated narrowcasting, particularly among the middle and lower classes, including the black audience. Yet he also argues that the most popular shows targeting black audiences were confined to “proven genres” (60) set in domesticated spaces. Acham is more specific, asserting that “The Cosby Show” was “the perfect antidote for a black image in [post-Civil Rights] crisis through its presentation of a wholesome and wealthy black family led by the well-known assimilationist Bill Cosby” (104).
It’s perhaps no surprise that among the black monologists of the ‘70s and '80s, Cosby was my favorite (I had several of his performances memorized); no doubt his stories and humor appealed more to my white, midwestern sensibilities than other comedians more rooted in black culture and race issues. Yet even as a kid in the mid-‘80s, I was disappointed by the blandness of “The Cosby Show,” which I felt was a watering down of the sarcasm and blend of nostalgia and pitiless irreverence of his monologues. One immediately sensed Gray’s notion of how the TV show “reinforced values of individualism, responsibility, and morality” (60) in ways that glossed over even the “Fat Albert” world of Cosby’s previous work.
Acham writes about “The Cosby Show” in the context of Reagan’s famed use of the “welfare queen” myth (104), and although she suggests the show could be read as “oppositional narrative” (106) to the constant demonization of blacks by the news media, she rightly suggests it was also read as grist for the mill, an ideal for black empowerment apart from social change (108). Its very blandness is what made it so broadly appealing, though one might make the opposite claim for its major competition (and implicit critique?), “The Simpsons.” Gray’s point that such representations were promoted for their commodifiable and economic potential among black audiences makes their depoliticization doubly troublesome.