It is not titled "The Cosby Show" for nothing. Despite its large and evolving cast of characters for eight seasons, the NBC series has always presented a showcase for star Bill Cosby -- so why should tonight's fond farewell episode be any different?
After 198 episodes, the Emmy-winning family comedy leaves the air with an hour-long goodbye that begins at 8 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2). And the hour closes with a sentimental, three-minute montage of soft-focus clips from previous episodes, accompanied by a message to viewers from NBC: "Thank you for joining us for eight seasons of magic."
But the finale itself plays satisfyingly as a regular episode, mostly without the gratuitous flashbacks that sometimes comprise farewell episodes. And as from the beginning, the focus is squarely on Cliff Huxtable (Mr. Cosby).
"Today he's being more Dad than ever," bemoans Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) at one point, pretty much summarizing the theme.
In the episode titled "And So We Commence," Theo is about to graduate from college, and eventually almost all the regulars of the extended Huxtable clan show up to attend.
The trouble is, Theo gets only a limited number of tickets for the ceremony and Cliff keeps inviting people. Everybody recalls the embarrassing "Princeton incident," when he did the same at the graduation of daughter Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf).
One notable absence from the finale is second daughter Denise (Lisa Bonet). The actress left the series last season, as her character moved with husband Martin (Joseph C. Phillips) to Singapore.
However, tonight's episode has Denise telephoning congratulations for Theo, and with a welcome revelation. (An NBC spokeswoman said Ms. Bonet, who left the show for the first season of the spinoff series "A Different World" and subsequently returned for a brief stint, did not want to be part of the finale.)
Theo is also planning to visit Denise, taking Olivia (Raven-Symone), the cute-as-a-button daughter of Denise's husband. Regular viewers will recall the girl joined the Huxtable clan in 1989 as original cute-as-a-button daughter Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam) grew older.
The show's attempt to tie these loose ends nicely implies a continuance for all the fictional characters. (NBC also says Raven-Symone and Mr. Warner are working on episodes of potential new series, each featuring different characters.)
But still, the focus consistently returns to Mr. Cosby's practiced act.
A running gag is Cliff's attempt to fix a broken doorbell. We also see him in a talk with Olivia that sounds like a Cosby stand-up routine, and his mugging gets the bigger laugh in a scene when Clair (Phylicia Rashad) tries to explain to Sondra's twins why people wear gowns and mortarboards for graduation.
Even at the graduation, Cliff's disappointment that Theo's name is not called individually is the central source of the humor.
Indeed, the finale plays like many an episode over the years: a hammy, sometimes too-precious Cliff mixing with members of an almost believable, changing family in ways that manage to touch viewers with vicarious emotion.
And the only flashback seems quite appropriate: The memorable scene from the very first show on Sept. 20, 1984, when Cliff picks his way through the mess of Theo's room to talk about economics, using play money to emphasize the importance of getting an education.
That show set the mix. And when Cliff and Clair dance out of the set tonight to reveal a big studio audience, "The Cosby Show" closes with the blend that still works pretty well.
On The Weekend Watch:
COUNTERING THE COS -- Up against the expected ratings blockbuster, the Fox network (Channel 45) tonight at 8 offers back-to-back reruns of "The Simpsons," the show that dared to challenge "The Cosby Show" viewer block. Each repeat features one of the series' regular gimmicks: the use of voice "appearances" by big stars -- in this case Sting and Cloris Leachman. On the other networks, ABC (Channel 13) has an old "Columbo" at 8 p.m., and CBS (Channel 11) offers "Top Cops."
LAUNCHING A SPINOFF -- Fox is using another hit show tonight at 9, "Beverly Hills, 90210" to preview a new spinoff series. Grant Show makes the first of two guest appearances as a construction worker named Jake. This summer, the character is pivotal to "Melrose Place," a new ensemble drama about what the network calls "twentysomething adults."
ANOTHER NEW SERIES? -- Don't be surprised if Dick Van Dyke winds up with a new show as a physician with a nose for clues. On Friday at 9 p.m., he returns in a second CBS (Channel 11) movie as the doctor detective who first popped up last season on an episode of "Jake and the Fatman." In "The House on Sycamore Street," he investigates a mysterious suicide. Also in the cast: George Hamilton, Mariette Hartley, Peter Scolari and Barry Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke's son).