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Can Bill Cosby make TV history again?

By David Bianculli
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Comedian Bill Cosby, who played Dr. Cliff Huxtable in the 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show,"<a href='http://billcosby.com/polls' target='_blank'> launched a poll on his website</a> in 2013 asking fans to vote for their favorite "Cosby Show" sweater. It was one example of the lasting impact these sweaters have had on fans. Comedian Bill Cosby, who played Dr. Cliff Huxtable in the 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show," launched a poll on his website in 2013 asking fans to vote for their favorite "Cosby Show" sweater. It was one example of the lasting impact these sweaters have had on fans.
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The Cosby sweater, then and now
The Cosby sweater, then and now
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The Cosby sweater, then and now
The Cosby sweater, then and now
The Cosby sweater, then and now
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Bianculli: Bill Cosby made TV history with starring roles in "I Spy," "The Cosby Show"
  • He says there's news he'll be, at 76, in a new TV show. Can lightning strike thrice?
  • He says despite Cosby's two ground-breaking shows, he's had quite a few that have failed
  • Bianculli: He can score again, but only if NBC lets him swing for fences. He's still hilarious

Editor's note: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TV Worth Watching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."

(CNN) -- In 1965 Bill Cosby made TV history and changed the face of television. He co-starred in NBC's "I Spy," becoming the first African-American male to star in a prime-time network drama -- and won three Emmys doing it.

In 1984, two decades later, Cosby made another pioneering TV achievement, reviving the then-dormant sitcom form by starring as the patriarch of a loving family called the Huxtables. The Cosby Show soon was TV's No. 1 show, and helped make NBC television's No. 1 network -- all while blasting another programming myth: That white viewers wouldn't embrace an all-black TV show.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli

Now, 30 years after doctor and dad Cliff Huxtable, and almost 50 years after tennis trainer and secret agent Alexander Scott, NBC is returning to the Bill Cosby well one more time -- and hoping his stardom, fan base and legacy can bring some much-needed magic to broadcast television in the 21st century.

The Deadline Hollywood website has reported that NBC and Cosby, partnered with producer Tom Werner (part owner of the company that produced "The Cosby Show"), have reached an agreement to produce a family sitcom starring Cosby.

The question is, can lightning strike thrice? Can Cosby make TV history yet again? And is it even fair to expect or ask him to?

Remember, first of all, that not every Bill Cosby TV series has been a guaranteed hit. After "I Spy," Cosby scored big in the children's television arena, with the animated "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" and his playful appearances on "The Electric Company" and "Sesame Street." But his prime-time series didn't always score as successes.

His first NBC series after "I Spy," the 1969 sitcom "The Bill Cosby Show," showcased him as a high-school coach and phys ed teacher. It was a very smart series, and positioned Cosby's Chet Kincaid in a strong position of authority, but it didn't catch on.

His next series -- for CBS this time -- came in 1972: a weekly variety series called "The New Bill Cosby Show." Its key ingredients, in addition to Cosby's weekly comic monologues, included dancer-actress Lola Falana, pretend drunk Foster Brooks, and bandleader Quincy Jones. But this show, in an era when variety shows were as ubiquitous as reality shows are today, was gone after one season.

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1976's "Cos," for ABC, was a variety show aimed at youngsters. It lasted two months. Then came "The Cosby Show," eight seasons of which singlehandedly moved TV from the topical and raw comedy of Norman Lear's sitcoms to an era in which television parents regained control, and family civility returned.

After "The Cosby Show" were more Cosby series, ones that never captured the same zeitgeist: NBC's "The Cosby Mysteries" (1994-95), and CBS's "Cosby" sitcom (1996-2000, re-teaming him with "Cosby Show" TV spouse Phylicia Rashad), and an "Art Linkletter's House Party" sequel of sorts: CBS's "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (1998-2000), with Cosby interviewing children.

In other words, over his TV career, Bill Cosby has hit as many singles and doubles as home runs. At 76, does Cosby have another long-ball miracle in him?

My bet is that he can, indeed, do it again -- provided he swings for the fences, and that NBC does nothing to impede Cosby from following his instincts and doing precisely what he wants.

The major warning flag, on NBC right now, is "The Michael J. Fox Show," which has returned another '80s NBC sitcom icon to television -- but not successfully, because the network seemed to think that merely signing Fox and bringing him back was enough. It isn't. You need the right role, the right writers and the right cast, and you have to put them all together at the right time.

But Cosby, like a comedy locust, seems amazingly designed to surface every two or three decades and capture the imagination. In the right vehicle, he can do it again.

His timing and his jokes were on full, hilarious display in last year's Comedy Central standup special, whose title may prove prophetic: "Bill Cosby: Far from Finished." Can his humor still work today, when, as always, he avoids going "blue"? It certainly worked on Comedy Central. Blue, black -- Bill Cosby never has made color more of a priority than universality.

If I were given a vote in designing Cosby's 21st-century sitcom comeback vehicle, I'd craft it as a dual home life/workplace vehicle, like the classic "The Dick Van Dyke Show." At home, let Cosby be the family grandpa, holding court over a loving, lively, extended family.

But let him to go work beyond retirement age, too, as a tenured college professor or a veteran media pundit on a TV talk show. Either way, he'd get to vent about current events, forgotten history and anything else the real William H. Cosby Ph.D. would care to bring to the viewing public via prime-time TV.

Including, of course, his observations on family and other parts of his still-funny monologues. More than 50 years after he released his first comedy album, Bill Cosby is a very funny fellow. Right?

Riiiiiight...

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Bianculli

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