82. "Theo's Economic Lesson," The Cosby Show (1984)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here. There is also a photo gallery on Pinterest.
I could argue that this is the episode that saved a network and maybe the network sitcom itself. It's a hyperbolic enough claim, but not probably not counter-intuitive enough for Salon or Slate. (Could I interest you guys in a 2000-word piece on how all subsequent sitcoms were influenced by We Got It Made?)
"Theo's Economic Lesson" is the pilot episode of the show that made NBC the No. 1 network and, by beating Magnum, PI in the ratings, revived interest in the sitcom format, which had been flagging in the Golden Age of TV Drama that brought us Dallas, Dynasty, and The A-Team. The Cosby Show was also responsible for a wave of sitcoms, mostly family-oriented, starring stand-up comics.
Cosby was an exception to the stand-up sitcom rule in that he also had plenty of acting experience, and there wasn't much risk in putting him center stage. He could ramble a bit, but he wasn't going blot out the rest of the cast à la Robin Williams. In fact, Cosby got to be a little too low-key in this series, which turned into "hang out with a bunch of nice people even though they don't do anything interesting" (the antithesis of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
This scene not only helped to make The Cosby Show an instant hit, it probably has a lot to do with praise for the show from political conservatives, even though Cosby himself has never been a conservative. (I don't care what e-mail your second cousin forwarded to you. Bill Cosby did not write it.)
The Cosby Show is praised on Conservapedia and is on Ben Shapiro's list of top conservative TV series: "A show about a black middle-class family that doesn’t rip the American government, doesn’t fall into the self-victimization of the 'racist society,' doesn’t portray whites as either idiots or bigots, and encourages black children to get an education, get married, and have a family." (By the way, is Shapiro correct that liberals "hate" Leave It to Beaver? I must have missed that memo.)
Whatever. "Theo's Economic Lesson" is a funny episode about a father getting exasperated with kids who don't yet know how the world works, even though he'll be complaining about feeling old when they do figure things out. That's not a phenomenon unique to one side of the political spectrum.
• The story behind "Cosby sweaters" is at Collectors Weekly:
the show often relied on close-up shots of Cosby to capture [...] improvised humor. However, tight shots like these caused problems when matching the scenes from two different takes, as a slight difference in costume positioning would become a glaring mistake.
“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says [costume designer Sarah] Lemire. “As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”
NOTE: Between the time I compiled the Top 100 list and started to write this post, streaming episodes of The Cosby Show vanished from Netflix. But there is a YouTube video (as of now) with the high points of the Theo story, including the almost-vaudevillian "Monopoly routine." Below that, a video that points out that Cosby forgot to tell Theo how expensive it is to bet on the horses.