A close critical viewing of The Cosby Show will leave even the most discerning, careful viewer with questions that he or she can answer only through overtly speculatory critical consideration. Ostensibly, the Huxtable narrative is plain and decidedly modernistic (as opposed to being ostensibly Postmodernistic, which it also both is and is not) in terms of its narrative structure, scope and boundaries. Each episode, of which there are 201, provides the viewer(s) with a glimpse into roughly 22 minutes of the Huxtable narrative for a grand total of about 4422 total minutes over the course of seven and a half years. In one respect, we learn a great deal about the Huxtables over that relatively brief period of time, particularly in terms of the dynamics of the principle marriages and the personalities (and countless psychological maladies) of the various family members and relatively few friends that appear. However, the Huxtable narrative is also packed full of lingering questions and rich suggestions, questions and suggestions which, while unanswered or barely elaborated upon within the Huxtable narrative proper, serve, nevertheless, to preoccupy the imagination and higher critical consciousness of the viewer and, moreover, the critic. A number of key questions are raised over the course of the Huxtable narrative without ever being adequately addressed or fully answered, particularly:
1. How, exactly, did Cliff and Claire meet? Early episodes state or insinuate that they met as teenagers and lived in the same general area or neighborhood as children and ultimately attended college at Hillman together. Claire is regularly stated as being six to four years younger than Cliff, which suggests that they were involved with each other at a very young age and that Cliff was attracted to a girl at least four years his junior during his teen years. In one early episode, it was strongly insinuated that the two were involved, in some manner, when Cliff was 15, at which point he proposed marriage to a nine to 11 year old Claire.
2. What were the circumstances surrounding the death of James Huxtable, Cliff’s seven year old brother? We are told he died from rheumatic fever but nothing else.
3. At one point in the series, it was stated that Cliff served in the Navy at some point but it is suggested that he did not participate in combat. What happened during Cliff’s Navy service?
4. What made Cliff’s parents, Russell and Anna, leave North Carolina for Philadelphia and then settle in New Jersey?
5. What was Denise doing in Africa during the year she lived there and met Martin?
6. Why is there only one television set in the Huxtable home?
7. Why is Rudy’s young heavyset friend Peter so reluctant to speak?
Given that Huxtable narrative is, at least at present, closed, the viewer—the discerning, critical viewer, that is—is left to answer these questions for him or herself and to participate, in essence, in the Postmodern process of crafting of character and invention of what might be best termed “deep narrative.” Offered below is a summary of this critic’s answer to some of these questions:
The Huxtables left the Carolinas for Philadelphia and then New Jersey not merely for the sake of Russell Huxtable’s career as a trombone player in the touring Jazz Caravan band but, rather, to help him recover from a heroin addiction that long plagued him (hence the slightly crazed look in Russell’s eye and his rather shaky hands). The death of James Huxtable occurred while Russell was out on a bender (and served as the early inspiration for him to seek release from his heroin habit) and right before the wide-eyes of a young Cliff Huxtable who, not unlike a young Martin Luther, was traumatized by this early childhood encounter with what Derrida would late term the "imminence of death. In both conscious and unconscious response to such, Cliff dedicate himself to a life medical practice—his choice of becoming an OB-GYN is quite telling and might indicate a certain subconscious demand, on his part, to participate in the life-making process—and overtly pleasant yet sometimes ironic and caustic sense of humor. As an adolescent, Cliff feels a forbidden attraction to a young Claire, an attraction reminiscent of Mann’s Gustav Van Ushenbach’s feelings toward young Tadzio (and, for that matter, Humbert Humbert’s feelings toward Lolita and, moreover, Chachi’s feelings toward Joanie ((and, moreover, hers towards him))). Cliff, after finishing Hillman, marrying a very young Claire (who must have graduated from Hillman at the age of 18), fathering Sondra, and possibly completing medical school, joined the Navy—perhaps trying to demonstrate his own capability for heroism and Hemingwayesque “grace under pressure” to his own war hero father—during the middle stage(s) of the American Vietnam conflict. What happened during that time is unknown. Perhaps he served as a combat field surgeon in an elite and highly-classified cross-branch military unit during the war, a unit that also consisted of James Sonny Crockett, Thomas Magnum, Hannibal Smith, Leo McGarry, Rick Hunter, those two guys on Riptide, among others? Is his apparent refusal to discuss his experience owed to some sort of classified military involvement? Or perhaps a wartime trauma? Twenty years later, Denise, feeling a deep sense of opposition to her father and mother’s seemingly political and social complacency, was part of a radical political organization in South Africa attempting to overthrow apartheid. She marries Martin on a lark in order to secure safe passage back to the United States after committing some act of political terrorism or sabotage. Cliff refuses to add a second television set to the Huxtable home for one particular reason: his heterontological superconsciousness has rendered him aware of his fictional nature as a character on a television program, a knowledge he attempts with some measure of success to repress partly by making sure he need not look at a TV screen every time he turns a corner. Peter, clearly, has adopted the psychological disposition of his decidedly recalcitrant father, a heavy-set man deeply scarred by the “burden of knowing,” particularly his knowledge that Brooklyn was certainly a likely nuclear strike spot during the Cold War and that the apocalypse could reign down on his door step at any time.
However, all of this, ultimately, while informed by deep critical knowledge, is speculation. These lingering questions, however, do not serve to decry the ultimate merits of—or the remarkable cohesiveness of—the Huxtable narrative. A true work of art, after all, is never complete. Questions will always remain and narrative holes will always appear. For instance, we never learn the details of Hamlet’s childhood or time at Wittenberg, nor do we ever learn the full nature and background of Mr. Kurtz (or Marlow either), nor the full circumstances surrounding Will’s move to Bel Aire from West Philadelphia. These marginal narrative strains serve, instead, to connect the reader/viewer more completely to the work at hand, to involve the viewer/reader in the actual creation of narrative. A true artistic masterwork like The Cosby Show, as compared to a piece of common entertainment, forces its audience to undertake some measure of work in order to fully appreciate and begin to comprehend it, to wrestle with the text at hand in order to gleam some measure of meaning from it, and, moreover, deep understanding.