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The Cosby Show Is a Smash But No Groundbreaker

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BREAKTHROUGH HIT: A television series, usually in prime time, that achieves huge popularity. Its success typically has wide-ranging impact on the medium, inspiring imitators and sparking new interest in the genre. See also: All in the Family, Happy Days, Charlie's Angels, Dallas.

Network programmers hardly need a TV encyclopedia to recognize that another show has joined that select category. NBC's The Cosby Show, starring Bill Cosby as an obstetrician coping with the small trials of family life, was the highest-rated network series to debut last fall, and its following has grown to blockbuster proportions. The sitcom now lands regularly in the No. 1 slot in the weekly ratings; a month ago it even beat the Academy Awards by more than two ratings points. Its success has boosted the ratings of NBC's entire Thursday night lineup and has helped the network to its best prime-time performance in ten years.

The series' long-term impact, judging from the networks' preliminary plans for fall, may be substantial. This week's episode, with Tony Orlando playing a counselor for troubled teens, is the pilot for a potential spin-off. Next week's season finale, with Lena Horne as guest star, may also be the springboard for a new series. Both CBS and ABC are developing their own comedies about black families, obviously inspired by Cosby's success, and the show is being credited with reviving network interest in the sitcom form in general.

The Cosby Show is the sort of hit that warms the hearts of even the coldest TV critics. Unlike other prime-time successes of recent years, such as Dallas and The A-Team, the series does not trade in illicit sex, cliff-hanger endings or car chases. It is a wholesome and rather sweet portrayal of a relatively realistic household. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable and his family happen to be black, but no special point is made of that fact--a refreshingly mature treatment of the matter of race.

Yet The Cosby Show's achievements have been rather wildly overstated. To be sure, at a time when most TV families inhabit a farcical never-never land, the series has much to recommend it. Its structure is unusually loose and laid- back for a sitcom, avoiding gimmicky plots and rapid-fire gag lines. Its subject matter is the recognizable trivia of family life: a son who won't clean up his room, a child who is afraid to sleep alone after seeing a scary movie, a visit from Grandpa.

Though Phylicia Ayers-Allen, as Dr. Huxtable's wife, is too young by a decade, the youngsters who play their rambunctious brood (Lisa Bonet, Malcolm- Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight-Pulliam) are charming. So is Cosby, most of the time. The veteran stand-up comic, commercial pitchman and star of three former TV series has found an ideal format for his gently satiric humor. In the face of life's little annoyances, Cosby's demeanor is a sardonic slow burn; his response, exasperated hyperbole. "I had a rough day yesterday," he complains. "Every child born on the face of this earth, I delivered."

But the show's problems start with Cosby himself. He is, quite simply, everywhere. His name is listed five times in the credits: as star, co- producer, executive consultant, co-author of the theme music and, as William H. Cosby Jr., Ed.D., one of the show's three creators. On a typical episode, he appears in virtually every scene.

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