In the pilot episode of The Cosby Show (“Pilot,” episode 1.2, a title that also—whether consciously, subconsciously, or by chance or synchronicity—foreshadows Theo Huxtable’s later professed desire to become an airplane pilot), Cliff Huxtable is known as “Clifford,” Theo is called “Teddy” and Sondra Huxtable does not exist (in fact, Claire Huxtable specifically states that she and Cliff have four children, not five as they do in all subsequent episodes). But in the following episode (“Goodbye Mr. Fish,” Episode 1.2), the universe of “Pilot” is placed under erasure: the Huxtables suddenly (and within the passing, seemingly, of a single week) have five children, their household has undergone a radical spatial transformation, T(eddy)heodore is now nicknamed “Theo” and Cliff(ord) is known as—and seemingly always has been known as—"Heathcliff." Between the first and second episodes of the series, the ontological structure of the Huxtable universe irrevocably and incommensurably shifts. The Huxtable narrative opens within the ontological zone of one universe and, within a single week, shifts into another universe (or ontological zone) where it largely remains for the duration of the series, an event that constitutes the most radical ontological transformation to be depicted on an American sitcom. The question viewers are left with, logically, is what event(s) transpired within the Huxtable’s universe between “Pilot” and “Goodbye Mr. Fish” that placed the first world under erasure and brought about the second world? That question is never firmly resolved (I, for one, suspect that Rudy Huxtable, who is always figured as a sort of Faustian figure within the larger Huxtable narrative, had something to do with it, a point which I will explore shortly). The “Pilot” universe is not fully negated, however, by this ontological shift. In fact, the traces1 of the previous universe of "Pilot"—as few and far between as they might be—can be tracked throughout the following eight seasons of the series.
In the flashback episodes “Looking Back: Part One and Two,” (Episodes 4.8 and 4.9) (episodes in which the Huxtables—minus Cliff((-ord-)), not incidentally ((the suggestion being that the Huxtable “world” cannot move forward without Cliff(((-ord-)))‘s active agency)); however, in reality ((a problematic concept given the parallels between Cliff Huxtable’s life and circumstances and Cosby’s own)), Cliff((-ord-))‘s absence was probably owed to Bill Cosby’s heavy involvement in promoting Leonard Part VI and developing what would later become Ghost Dad—reflect upon occurrences from the past four years of their lives ((interestingly, the Huxtable family memories seemingly do not extend to events that occurred any time prior to the events of “Pilot,” suggesting, perhaps, that the Huxtables reside within a limited ontological zone))) it is revealed that events from “Pilot,” particularly Cliff(-ord-)’s famous and decidedly capitalistic and anti-Marxist minded lecture to T(eddy)heo about his lack of critical and practical understanding of the movements of capital, exist as part of The Cosby Show canon. Of course, it is possible that these events also occurred within the secondary/dominant timeline established in “Goodbye Mr. Fish.” However, given that the Huxtables appear to recall the precise events that occurred within “Pilot,” it appears that the Huxtables maintain some form of collective memory of the actual events that transpired in “Pilot.” Interestingly, Sondra is not present for this recollection (though her husband Elvin is) of an event that transpired within a universe in which she herself did not exist. The suggestion is that the other members of the household, all of whom existed in some basic form in “Pilot,” possess what might be best-termed “hetero-ontological superconsciousness,” the super-cognitive ability to read, realize and conceptualize the traces of negated or erased previous realities.
It can be supposed that the death of Rudy’s fish in “Goodbye Mr. Fish” caused a traumatic rupture within her fragile psyche, a trauma that lead her to will into existence new versions of her father and brother, as well as a being—in a gesture that recalls the actions of the protagonist of Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”—known as “Sondra” (recall the absolute delight that Rudy demonstrated when Sondra first appeared in “Bonjour, Sondra” ((Episode 1.10))) who would later serve to grant Rudy a particular form of indirect agency within the Huxtable household through which she could bring about the collapse of the Huxtable family hegemony, the same hegemony that she blames for the death of Mr. Fish and, moreover, the absurdist fanfare and blatant emotional disregard that surrounded his passing within the Huxtable household.
Ultimately, The Cosby Show can be conceptualized as a strongly Postmodernistic narrative that overtly challenges the principles of Modernistic narrative structures. Brian McHale argues that postmodern fictional narratives tend to raise “post-cognitive” questions that “bear either on the ontology of the . . . text itself or on the ontology of the world that it projects, for instance: What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ? What happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?” These are the sorts of post-cognitive questions that are raised both directly and indirectly by The Cosby Show. However, the show’s most decidedly Postmodernistic—and post-cognitive—gesture occurs in the final moments of the series finale (“And So We Commence, Part Two,” episode 8.25) in which Cliff(-ord-) and Claire, at long last, have their house to themselves again (at least for a moment) and begin to dance together in their living room. As the two dance cheek to cheek, they step out from their living room and into the studio audience viewing the live taping of the episode. In their final moments on screen, Cliff(-ord-) and Claire Huxtable cross the proverbial “fourth wall,” and step—literarily—from one ontological zone into another. With this, Cliff(-ord-)—and Claire as well—is able to overcome the ontological limitations that have been imposed upon his reality and, much like Rudy, is able not only to conceptualize and recall other ontologies and modes of existence but, moreover, move bodily and psychically between them, to violate the barriers imposed between different ontological levels. In the final moments of the show Cliff(-ord-) Huxtable is able to escape from the boundaries of the chaotic world Rudy has seemingly created and set out to explore, and perhaps find some form of freedom and peace within entirely new universes and modes of existence.
Or perhaps the entire series after “Pilot” took place entirely within one of Cliff(-ord-)’s opium dreams. That matter, however, will be negotiated in an upcoming column.
1 Jacques Derrida writes extensively about the concept of the “trace,” and argues that, “the trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace … In this was the metaphysical text is understood; it is still readable, and remains read.”