It’s fair to ask if the new show will just feel like a throwback to the old “Cosby Show” that ended in 1992 — and whether it will still resonate. After all, it’s not just the television landscape that’s changed since Cosby’s iconic show drew to a close. Public perception of the man once known for sporting sweetly hideous sweaters and delightedly hawking Jell-O Pudding Pops has shifted as well.
In recent years, Cosby, 77, shed his image as a beloved television patriarch and traded it for one of public scold with his now-famous “Pound Cake Speech” delivered while accepting an NAACP award in 2004. ( “Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake.”)
Writing for the Atlantic in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of Cosby’s most vocal, if tempered critics:
Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia — his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage — is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball. And for all its positive energy, his language of uplift has its limitations.
Cosby also faced scrutiny earlier this year after Newsweek published the accounts of Barbara Bowman and Tamara Green, two women who said Cosby drugged and violently sexually assaulted them. Cosby did not respond to Bowman’s accusations, but his publicist told Newsweek in response to Green’s account: “This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.”
Bowman and Green were among 13 women who accused Cosby of sexual assault in a 2004 lawsuit settled in 2006. But their accusations, and those of Cosby’s other alleged victims, haven’t stuck or diminished Cosby’s public image or cultural cachet. At Slate, Amanda Hess argued the reasons for this are 1) Cosby has largely disappeared from the public eye and 2) his alleged victims were older than 18, which made it easier to dismiss or ignore their claims:
Our divided attention is also a result of the types of victims we prefer to support. In the most high-profile rape cases to spark national conversations in recent years — from Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and R. Kelly to the cases in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo. — the victims have all been children and teenagers. In a society that still has trouble seeing all forms of sexual abuse as clearly wrong, it’s easier for us to place blame on attackers who target underage victims. When the victims of rape are adult women, we focus on their own behavior and mistrust their testimonies, softening our incrimination of their attackers.
Now the question is: Once Cosby reenters the television landscape, will the accusations against him settle into the collective conscience?