CHARACTER FLAW

Newsflash: Bill Cosby Is Not Cliff Huxtable

TV Land has canceled The Cosby Show reruns. Is this a mature expression of understandable judgment, or a bid to erase history while conflating fiction and reality?

11.20.14 8:20 PM ET

Bill Cosby is losing everything, very quickly. The allegations of rape and sexual assault he faces are grave, the detail contained within the accounts awful and damning: a sixteenth woman has come forward to allege he attacked her.

The 77-year-old comedian’s response has been to say nothing, and then to insist he not even be quoted saying nothing. NBC has dropped its plans for a new Cosby sitcom, Netflix has scrapped a special devoted to the comedian that was set to air—when else, for America’s onetime Dad—over Thanksgiving.

And then there is TV Land, which has dropped The Cosby Show from its schedule, meaning no more reruns of that all-conquering eighties staple. The Cosby Show, like The Golden Girls, remains a TV-repeat evergreen—a bowl-of-warm-soup to gladden the late-night or lazy weekend soul.

The show’s excision from TV Land’s schedules is perhaps the most brutal public repudiation of Cosby’s alleged assaults than anything else, because The Cosby Show was the vehicle which affirmed, and over the years to new generations reaffirmed, his warmly held stardom.

Is TV Land’s decision the right one? Is it the reflection of a mature society, implicitly passing its judgment on Cosby’s alleged actions, or is it immature, signaling that society cannot separate Cosby the real man from Cosby-as-Cliff-Huxtable? The psychology behind TV Land’s decision is fascinating, because it reveals our own skewed psychology, too.

The story that Cosby abused so many women isn’t just news because alleged sexual assault on such a horrific scale merits it, but because of who did it. And this is not just a famous actor, which would make the story compelling enough, but because the actor was known for a role that came to enshrine him as America’s paterfamilias, in a show that itself revolutionized the portrayal of black people, and families, on television.

TV Land’s decision is a sweeping and brutal piece of cultural erasure, and it is an entirely familiar one. After high-school shootings, in an attempt to remember those who have died and been injured, there are calls to not name or remember their killers—their lasting punishment is to not be remembered, or made notorious (if that is what they desired) by their act—a trend broken in the most recent shooting in Marysville, Washington.

There, classmates of the shooter Jaylen Fryberg, took to Facebook and social media to remember him warmly after he shot dead two fellow pupils before killing himself.

The typical, attempted public erasure of school shooters from the scenes of their crime is akin to what is happening to Cosby across TV schedules right now, because both imply our society has no place for those who do truly terrible things. They must, in every sense, be cast out—their shame is to be made invisible. Reading some of the commentary, and comments under the Cosby stories online, the recurring theme is: how could the guy who played Cliff Huxtable do this? How could America’s number one family man be a monster? And so, as with all monsters, Cosby is cast off into the shadows.

Not only has he been tried and convicted without having his say, or without a court passing sentence, but culturally society is showing itself to be pathetically ill-equipped to observe him in anything but the most stark of contrasts.

Bill Cosby, it seems, can only be seen in two registers: sainted family man of a much-loved sitcom, or fallen, tarnished villain. There is no middle ground. There is no understanding that on The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby was playing a role, and playing it so well that America happily conflated character and actor. The conflation was so total that now America apparently feels cheated, or tricked somehow, that this person is not the character he played.

But Cosby never was, and it is not his failing that America took him to their hearts as so (indeed, ironically, that confidence trick was solely down to his acting brilliance). Cosby’s alleged crimes are horrific, but America’s infantile deification of celebrity, its crazy melding of the fictional and the real, underpins Cosby’s present position in the public stocks, as much as his alleged crimes.

Shouldn’t society convict him for brutally abusing women, not for failing to be the man he was absurdly constructed into being in the public mind? If people really feel that cheated or let down by Bill Cosby being an alleged sex attacker, they may need to watch television, and read fiction, differently.

TV Land should continue to play The Cosby Show, and let audiences decide whether they want to watch Bill Cosby playing Cliff Huxtable. It may help us all grow up: we can watch the fiction late at night, and see the grim reality of this episode played out during the day. Finally, America will have to accept Bill Cosby as a many-sided man, rather than a much-loved pop-culture caricature.

By pretending his fictional alter ego doesn’t exist, by pretending we didn’t enjoy buying into that fiction—as TV Land is doing in striking off The Cosby Show re-runs—is unnecessarily nannying, and shaming to us, as much as him. It says: How could we have been so fooled? How can we bear to look on those cuddly Huxtable sweaters now? The guy was a creep. Well, the truth is Bill Cosby is a lot of things, just like he always was—including, possibly, a sex attacker.

By continuing to show his sitcom, TV Land would be doing a huge public service in reminding an apparently unaware public that the actors on our screens are different to the characters they play. TV Land is not helping Cosby’s alleged victims, or making him pay for his crimes, or even helping us understand those crimes and him, by taking the show off the air.

Blissfully—and not a little moronically—beholden to TV iconography, we chose to set Bill Cosby in an eternal cuddly sweater. That suited us until the revelation of these alleged, awful crimes. By cutting The Cosby Show re-runs off, TV Land can’t rewrite that history of myopic glorification, or erase the harsh contours of the real Bill Cosby.