When The Cosby Show Got “Very Special”

Why were The Cosby Show’s Very Special Episodes so much better than every other ’80s sitcom’s?


Clair Huxtable wants answers.

Photo illustration by Slate

In the gloriously campy realm of sitcom tropes, perhaps none is more maligned than the “Very Special Episode.” The formula is simple: Take all of the awkwardness and utterly laughable moments of the educational drug and alcohol videos you had to watch in school, and insert them into the already cheesy world of your favorite sitcom characters. The result has made for some of the most cringe-inducing moments in pop-culture history.

Happy Days saw high school dropout the Fonz finally receive his high school diploma—an honorable achievement, though watching again I balked at his stilting sermon on why “quittin’ things is definitely not cool-a-mundo.” The infamous “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, in which Arnold and his friend Dudley are nearly molested by a creepy old man, is unbearably maudlin and tone-deaf, unable to balance humor with its serious subject matter. (Oh, that laugh track!) When Alex P. Keaton’s friend dies suddenly in a car accident on Family Ties, he mourns and copes with his existential dread by wandering around a barely lit, open soundstage. (There’s that laugh track again!) And what child of that era hasn’t laughed unabashedly at the now-memeified Jessie Spano-on-caffeine-pills “I’m so excited!” moment from Saved by the Bell?

The Cosby Show, which premiered 30 years ago this week, ran its share of VSEs. But a Very Special Cosby Show meant something a little different than a similar episode on one of its sitcom contemporaries. Yes, Bill Cosby, legendary for his emphasis on education, embedded nearly every episode of his hit family series with some sort of moral lesson, sometimes to the chagrin of critics: In his analysis of the show in 1988—by then in its fourth season—John J. O’Connor compared the show to the preachy, saccharine Father Knows Best in the New York Times. Even fans of the show might have worried that when Cosby upped the stakes for a Very Special Episode, The Cosby Show would become so didactic as to be unwatchable.

Yet when Cosby—so often accused of wrapping his fictional family in the comfort of a sterile, impenetrable bubble—did let a rare sliver of the real world into the Huxtable household via a VSE, it was usually delivered with charm and warm wisdom, as matter-of-fact as Clair giving a speech on the importance of telling the truth. Despite Cosby’s more recently criticized bouts with respectability politics in the black community, Cosby’s VSEs usually approached its “serious” issues in a more nuanced manner than you might expect.

Theo and the Joint,” from Season 1, established the Cosby take on topical subject matter. While the title suggests that the only Huxtable son (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) faces peer pressure to be cool and smoke weed, the episode overturns that well-worn trope, centering on a struggle to maintain trust between parents and children. When Clair (Phylicia Rashad) finds a joint in one of Theo’s textbooks, she and Cliff approach Theo about the joint in a non-accusatory manner, and ask him where it came from. Theo claims to be completely unaware of the joint’s existence.

“You’re a lot of things, some good, some bad—but you’re not a liar,” Cliff reasons, and he and Clair let him go without punishment. But Theo, still upset and worried his parents secretly doubt him, approaches his classmate Braxton (Steven Thompson), a well-known pot smoker, who admits that he stashed the joint in Theo’s book when a teacher surprised him. Somehow, Theo talks Braxton into telling Cliff and Clair what happened, just to prove to them that their son is drug-free.

It’s a curious episode because of the way in which parental approval—as opposed to law enforcement or the horrors of addiction, favorite scare tactics of “very special episodes”—is given such weight; not once does Theo express any interest in giving weed a try himself. It could be argued that this epitomizes the show’s Leave It to Beaver-style innocence about such matters, but it’s more than a bit refreshing to see it handled so matter-of-factly, considering how ridiculously campy sitcoms can get about drug use (see Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

And while the episode nears its end with Cliff diagnosing, rather grandly, Braxton with a “problem”—we don’t have any evidence that the teen is a full-on pothead—“Theo and the Joint” doesn’t belabor the point, either. Cliff suggests that Braxton reach out to the adults in his life, while offering to lend an ear as well, and the teen promises to “think about it.” Everything gets wrapped up smoothly: Theo invites Braxton to play football, “as long as he’s not high.”

Five seasons later, in “I’m In with the In Crowd,” one of Cliff and Clair’s own does give in to peer pressure—Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), though this time, the drug of choice is the far less stigmatized alcohol. A few rounds of the alphabet game with her girlfriends and a bottle of whiskey while her friend’s parents are away leave her severely hung over; her intoxication is played for laughs, highlighting how foolish she appears alongside her sober family members. Cliff and Clair never lecture her on the dangers of drinking—instead, they dole out some rough justice and send her off to school the next day despite her wretched state. Later, still feeling the awful effects of the night before, she’s forced to play the drinking game again with them. (In a funny twist, the “whiskey” is actually tea, but Vanessa and the audience don’t realize this until after baby sister Rudy has taken a chug as well.)

What’s most interesting about this episode, however, is Theo’s assessment of the situation: One of the Huxtable kids was bound to crack under the pressure, he tells his parents. “You guys don’t realize what it’s like being a Huxtable child. Because of what you two have achieved, the whole world expects a lot more from us than other kids. Let’s face it, there’s nowhere else left for us to go but down.”

Cliff and Clair shut that talk down immediately, but it’s still telling that the show attempted to address one of the criticisms frequently hurled at it—that the kids were too squeaky-clean, their problems too artificial or benign compared with the real world. (Though I would argue that while it’s a fair assessment of the Huxtable brood, it’s not necessarily a fair criticism of the show. Not all teens experience peer pressure to do drugs or smoke—and of course, the “gritty” world of Good Times and other black sitcoms so frequently compared to The Cosby Show were no more “realistic” representations of black life, either.) It’s no secret that Cosby strove for dignity for his TV kids, onscreen and off: “The temptations were there,” Malcolm-Jamal Warner has said of his experience growing up as a celebrity teenager in the ’80s. “But there was also the understanding that when I’m out, I’m not only a reflection of my mother and my father, I’m also representing Mr. Cosby and his work.”

Which could explain why, aside from Vanessa’s drinking escapade, the Huxtable children never found themselves in any sort of real, life- or reputation-threatening trouble. (Even a minor car accident leads to the good fortune of meeting Stevie Wonder and “jamming on the one” with him in his studio.) Those more pressing issues, when they did arise, were conferred on side characters, and usually in one-off guest appearances: In Season 3’s “The Shower,” Denise (Lisa Bonet), home during her freshman year at Hillman, throws a wedding shower for her friend Veronica (Lela Rochon), who confides that she and her fiancée got pregnant on purpose so that her father would let them get married sooner. Scared, Veronica explains that nothing is working out as they planned, but Denise tells her that everything will be all right.

Later, Denise has a heart-to-heart with Clair, confessing that she feels helpless, and worrying about how she would handle a similar situation.

Clair’s insistence that Denise would never put herself in that situation in the first place is played for laughs, but Denise’s thoughtfulness about the subject feels honest and true to her persona as a free-spirited, open-minded young woman. As does Clair’s straightforward analysis of Veronica’s situation; written realistically and delivered beautifully by Rashad, the moment attains a level of artistry that spot-on TV lessons rarely reach.

In Season 7, Clair’s teenage cousin Pam (Erika Alexander), now living with the Huxtables, deals with the most Very Special issue in the eight-season run of The Cosby Show: the pressure as an adolescent to have sex. The two-episode structure of “Just Thinking About It” (rare for the series) conveys just how important the subject is, and while the message it sends feels a bit ham-fisted at times, it’s also surprisingly empowering for young women.

Pam’s boyfriend Slide (Mushond Lee) tries to convince her that everyone’s doing it, and while Pam is tempted, she has her feisty, fast-talking best friend Charmaine (Karen Malina White) as a voice of reason. Charmaine is very vocal about saving herself for when she’s in love and ready, and there’s even a moment when she confronts her boyfriend Lance (Allen Payne), on the basketball court, when she learns that there are rumors that they’ve had sex, even when they haven’t.

“Just Thinking About It” is neither preachy nor condescending, two descriptors that have affixed themselves to Cosby in recent years, in light of his well-publicized speeches about young black “knuckleheads” who don’t speak proper English .) Abstinence until marriage isn’t the argument the show’s making (“I’m not saying wait until marriage,” Pam tells a persistent Slide, “just until I’m ready”), and when Pam asks Cliff about birth control, Cliff offers to send her to a gynecologist after she talks with her mother back in California first. And the show explores the way teenage boys can at once give in to misogynist attitudes, as seen with the trash talk about Pam and Slide’s relationship on the basketball court, while also learning to respect a woman’s decision.

Nearly every episode of The Cosby Show was used for didactic effect, whether it was something as benign as teaching the value of a dollar, or the reality of death, or even the cultural significance of Shakespeare. It wasn’t always very fun to watch—remember Season 3’s “Hillman” and its 10 minutes of speeches at a university president’s retirement ceremony? But it meant that the show’s Very Special Episodes, understated and nuanced as they were, played very similarly to its regular episodes. They were just a little bit special, and therefore more successful than their equivalents on other sitcoms. When the Cosby kids encountered real trouble, we may never have seriously worried about their well-being. But we could be sure that the show would handle it with measured ease.