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TV Offered Few Antecedents for Michelle Obama. Just One, in Fact: Clair Huxtable
But TV audiences have to go back to "The Cosby Show" to find a close facsimile to what Obama represents both professionally and personally, and that's going back more than 17 years. Clair Huxtable -- the stylish mother, wife and lawyer -- remains a lonely figure in popular culture.
As Seen on TV
"The Cosby Show," a sitcom about a black American family with five children, a lawyer-mom played by Phylicia Rashad and comedian Bill Cosby as the doctor-dad, ran from 1984 to 1992. Inspired by Cosby's monologues on child-rearing, the show was an anomaly when it premiered in the wake of TV series such as "Sanford and Son," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons," which told the stories of down-and-out black Americans and upwardly mobile ones with equal parts slapstick and buffoonery.
"The Cosby Show" was doggedly upper-middle class in its sensibility. Every detail, from the choice of artwork in the Huxtable living room to the use of jazz in its opening credits to references to historically black colleges, spoke of the "Talented Tenth," a functional, culturally proud segment of the African American community that did not make the evening news.
In its first season, "The Cosby Show" finished third in the ratings. For the next four seasons, it was the top-rated series on television. Over the course of its run, it revived the situation-comedy format, resuscitated a flailing NBC, sparked conversations about race and made Cosby into America's dad.
Author Susan Fales-Hill, 46, began her career on the show as an apprentice and then a writer. Later, she became executive producer and head writer for the spinoff series "A Different World," about life on a fictional, historically black college campus through which viewers could see work-study students and trust-fund babies.
"There's something that happens when you validate the existence of someone by visually representing them," she says. "What people see, they believe."
And what they do not see on a regular basis, they assume to be rare or even nonexistent.
Fales-Hill could write from her own experience. She is the biracial daughter of actress Josephine Premice, a contemporary of Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne. She is a published author and comes from a background of private schools.
During her time on "Cosby," Fales-Hill remembers people telling her that families like the one on the show didn't exist, but her rejoinder was her personal story. "I had people tell me this is like a white family," Fales-Hill recalls. "But 'Cosby' brought the dirty secret of America -- the black bourgeoisie -- out of the closet."
When "Cosby" went off the air, the lesson Hollywood took was not that stories about functional black professionals can have broad appeal. It was that Bill Cosby has broad appeal, that stand-up comics could sustain entire sitcoms and that situation comedies can draw large audiences. "The Cosby Show" opened the door for "Grace Under Fire," "Home Improvement," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Cybill" and "Roseanne." And Cosby went on to star in another self-named comedy, which ran from 1996 to 2000. (And once again, Rashad played his wife, although the role was a modest one.)
By the end of the millennium, white, angst-ridden yuppies and white, wacky singles were dominating the airwaves. "Survivor" debuted in 2000 to launch the reality-show juggernaut. And women like Fales-Hill largely vanished from popular culture.
"There's a generation with very little exposure to the black professional class, and they stand in amazement," Fales-Hill says. "People say, 'You're so articulate.' And it's because I can string a sentence together!"