AN ERA, of sorts, ends tomorrow night as Denise announces she's pregnant, Theo graduates from New York University, and the Huxtables fade into television history. Still, because of the way it changed America, "The Cosby Show" will not be soon forgotten.
Simply in terms of numbers, "The Cosby Show" deserves a place in TV annals. For four of its eight seasons, the show was rated No. 1 -- placing it with "Gunsmoke" and "All in the Family" as one of the most popular shows of all time. In the ratings, it swept every demographic, age and racial group, and it appealed to audiences in foreign locales as unlikely as South Africa.
Bill Cosby was hardly the first black performer to hit it big in popular culture, or even on television. On everything from "Julia," "Mod Squad" and "Star Trek" to "The Jeffersons," "Sanford and Son" and "Roots," likable and heroic black stars have been appearing on television for 20 years and appealing to largely white audiences. But "Cosby," of course, was far more influential.
Initially, what Mr. Cosby did more than anything else for television was revive the situation comedy. In 1983, the year before the series premiered, only one of the top 15 shows was a sitcom; three years later, seven of the top 10 shows were.
That was a key transformation in the entertainment life of the nation. Sitcoms revolve around likable characters surrounded by a lovable family -- whether that family is a traditional nuclear unit or a group of patrons in a bar. Drama shows usually revolve around law enforcement -- a public entity. In the swing to "family values," privatization and anti-government sentiment that has marked the last decade, "The Cosby Show" was a catalyst.
What's more, sitcoms are funny. In a country where comedy has become one of the predominant forms of political dialogue and cultural introspection -- a trend displayed in everything from the growth of comedy clubs to cable comedy channels to the political importance placed on Johnny Carson's monologue -- "Cosby" was a trailblazer.
Cosby's gentle humor, of course, was more reminiscent of "Father Knows Best" than "Saturday Night Live;" this show was Hammer, not 2 Live Crew; Doug Wilder, not Jesse Jackson. It was, after all, "Designing Women" that referred to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas showdown, not "Cosby." By weaving a social reality that was relentlessly upbeat and relatively apolitical, "Cosby" -- perhaps unwittingly -- became a suitable complement to the Reagan-Bush years.
To be sure, race was a key ingredient in the formula. One has only to picture what the same series would have looked like with a white family to realize that the show's blackness is what gave the whole thing its cutting edge, its relevance, its impact and ultimately its audience. But the show was usually aracial; "Cosby" used race largely the way movies use special effects -- as a device to attract and hold its audience. The ostensible theme was generally about other things with admittedly broader appeal.
That bothered some people. Critics often attacked "The Cosby Show" for failing to address more social themes and for portraying blacks as very much like whites. But that was precisely the point. The first product of the post-civil rights era, "The Cosby Show" gave blacks the freedom to be apolitical, just like most Americans. Moreover, by implication, the series told viewers you don't have to be white to be upper-middle class, acquisitive or have a stable family. Those may seem like truisms today -- hence the show's dated quality. But even eight years ago, rest assured they were not.
It would surely be a mistake to conclude from Mr. Cosby's success -- or the good fortune of a few in the entertainment world -- that racism is dead or that our social problems have disappeared. But because of this show, racial attitudes have improved; we're better off today than we were a decade ago. Few other television shows can make that claim.
Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.