While NBC has rebounded a bit in the ratings lately, thanks to The Voice and The Blacklist, as recently as this month network head Robert Greenblatt conceded it’s still having big trouble with its sitcoms. But its philosophy seems to be that there’s nothing wrong with NBC that can’t be solved by what was right with NBC—in around 1984. This season, it gave beloved past star Michael J. Fox an extraordinary full-season commitment for what turned out to be a bland sitcom with anemic ratings. Now, according to a report in Deadline, the network will try to boost its sitcom ratings by going back into business with the leg-warmer era’s favorite dad, Bill Cosby.
Could the 76-year-old Cosby make a great hit sitcom today? Sure. There’s no mandatory retirement age for genius. The Cosby Show was a landmark of smart, good-hearted comedy that holds up well today. His follow up, Cosby, for CBS, was… all right. And as NBC should have learned this season, a famous name is itself no guarantee.
NBC’s reasons for wanting Cosby back are evident. The question will be: why does Cosby want to go back to NBC? The problem with The Michael J. Fox Show wasn’t Fox, who was and remains a gifted performer. It’s that he was in a tepid, generic show that seemed to have no idea behind it but, “Michael J. Fox, back on your TV again!” Despite a lot of talent, The Michael J. Fox Show almost seemed to go out of its way to be as unmemorable as possible, leaving it little selling point beyond the audience’s memories of Family Ties.
Likewise, Cosby was a famous name even when he brought The Cosby Show to primetime (with the same producers he’ll be working with now). But that wasn’t what made it great TV. It was that he had distinctive ideas about how to shake up the way families in general, and African American families in particular, were portrayed on TV, and he created memorable characters to express those ideas.
Bill Cosby hasn’t stopped having ideas about the culture and media since then. He said in an interview last year, “There is a viewership out there that wants to see comedy, and warmth, and love, and surprise, and cleverness, without going into the party attitude.” (The trick would be to parlay that into a sitcom without a kids-these-days-with-their-loud-parties attitude.)
But is there an idea for a show sparking this deal, or just an idea to get attention? Bill Cosby, like the Jell-O he once pitched, remains a beloved brand. But if his show makes it to air, the proof will be not in the brand but in the pudding.