For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding its annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we’re determining the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals, on October 14. Today’s quarterfinal round will decide whether The Cosby Show’s Clair and Cliff or The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth move on to the next round. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which couple you think should advance.
Let us attempt, for a moment, to compartmentalize the charges of serial sexual assault against Bill Cosby. (We can’t and we won’t and we shouldn’t, but for the purposes of this exercise, we will briefly try.) Here’s a man whose legacy is so tarnished that The Cosby Show, a ratings-topper for five of its eight seasons on NBC, has been buried so deep in the Hulu archives that you need to type “C-O-S-B” in the search function just to access it. Still: Swallow the bile that might collect in your throat whenever Cliff lectures his children — and the viewers at home — about good moral choices. Fast-forward through those cutesy opening credits sequences, in which Cosby prances around with the cast, pulling his most punchable, mugging face.
Because on paper, this should be an easy one.
In one corner, we have the Huxtables, Cliff and Clair, an aspirational model of the black professional class (and of American family life period, for that matter), broadcast to 20 to 30 million households across America. The Huxtables kicked off an unstoppable mid-to-late ’80s NBC comedy lineup that included Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court, leading into hour-long 10 p.m. juggernauts Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. And their influence on sitcom families continues to the present day, even if some shows, like Black-ish, are notable for tweaking that central relationship and opening up to more contentious conversations on race and class in America. To not discuss the Huxtables, one of the most definitive TV couples of all time, in a TV couples bracket, would be to erase TV history.
In the other corner, we have Philip and Elizabeth Jennings of The Americans, a show watched by approximately 5 percent of the audience that tuned into The Cosby Show. The Americans has breathed deeply from the life-sustaining resuscitator of critical acclaim, only recently getting the Emmy recognition the show has deserved over four sterling seasons on FX. And the Jennings are not, in principal, a “real” marriage in the way the Huxtables are, but an arranged partnership between two KGB agents assigned to infiltrate American institutions in the waning years of the Cold War. Since the show is ongoing, it’s impossible to measure the impact the Jennings might have on future TV couples, but easy to measure the impact they’re currently having on the viewing populace — minimal.
And yet, the Huxtables and the Jennings are a fascinating window into married life in the 1980s, when family values were at issue in the culture, with the Reagans serving as standard-bearers in the White House. In nearly every respect, they’re a study in contrasts, but the one thing that unites Cliff and Clair and Philip and Elizabeth is an abiding commitment to sticking together and raising their children under a shared sense of right and wrong. They come at parenting from different angles — one inherently more stable and sustainable than the other — but the union between the Huxtables and the Jennings is better understood by their relationship to their kids than their relationship to each other. Protecting their families, raising them properly, and, in the Jennings’ case, sustaining the illusion of normalcy, is of paramount concern to both couples. They’re model Reagan families, if only by appearance.
Two classic, back-to-back episodes of The Cosby Show from its second season, “Happy Anniversary” and “Cliff in Love,” go a long way toward defining the Huxtable marriage. And it’s important to note upfront that Cliff and Clair’s marriage is defined by external events — not their interactions together, which can be playful and charming, but by how others allow them to express what they represent as a couple. They share some moments of intimacy through the show’s run, but like many fictional and nonfictional parents, they come at the end of an exhausting day or get short-circuited by kids barging through the door. It’s not easy to find time for each other.
In “Happy Anniversary,” the warmest of all Cosby Show episodes, Cliff and Clair conspire with their children to throw Grandma and Grandpa Huxtable a surprise 49th anniversary party. Cliff has arranged a special European cruise for his parents and commissioned an oil painting drawn from an old photograph shot before they were married. The Huxtables cap off the evening with a choreographed lip-sync song-and-dance to Ray Charles’s “Night Time Is the Right Time,” with Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) as Charles and little Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam) belting out the “ba-baaaaaaay” accompaniment. It has the effect of reenergizing Cliff’s parents’ marriage: They remember the couple they used to be and, in the end, overcome their reluctance to abandon their daily routine for a European adventure.
In honoring Grandma and Grandpa Huxtable’s marriage, Cliff and Clair affirm their own. They are honoring thy father and thy mother, in the plainest Biblical sense, and they are asserting their decades-long marriage as such a standard that it’s preserved on oil and canvas. They’ve marshaled their children — including three teenagers — into a performance that’s as much a show of Huxtable family unity as romantic entertainment for their guests. And in the lead-up to the event, Cliff and Clair parent with such ease that they mostly fuss over pulling off the surprise rather than roping their kids into participating.
“Cliff in Love” addresses the blinkered chauvinism of Elvin (Geoffrey Owens), the on-again, off-again boyfriend of the eldest Huxtable daughter, Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf). Elvin has old-fashioned ideas of the roles husbands and wives play in the marriage, treating Cliff and Clair, a doctor and a lawyer who share equal responsibility, like exotic creatures, as if he fell asleep during the Eisenhower Era and was only now waking up to a changed world. When Clair asks if she can bring Cliff and Elvin some coffee, the young man says he didn’t know that she “served” his husband like that. Commence fireworks.
In one glorious monologue, Phylicia Rashad defines in no uncertain terms the give-and-take of the Huxtable marriage, where both partners are on equal footing and are expected to break out of traditional gender roles. And when Daryl, a second Sondra suitor, turns up at the Huxtable’s doorstep— a pre-med student who grew up in a two-income house and is happy to do his share of the cooking — Cliff pushes him on his daughter as a better option. Cliff sees himself in Daryl, the type of upstanding, modern gentleman who can, perhaps, be successful enough to have his own spacious New York brownstone and thoughtful enough to present he and Clair with their own painted portrait on their 49th anniversary.
It’s a funny episode, but The Cosby Show talked the talk more than it walked the walk. Cosby and Rashad have an easy, lived-in chemistry together, and Cliff and Clair are equally available to dole out life lessons to their children, whether scolding Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) for wearing makeup to school or clearing the house to give Theo an elaborate lesson in real-world expenses. Yet there’s a conservative bent to Cliff and Clair’s marriage that undercuts their professed equality: Clair plays the homemaker role with such frequency that Cliff pretending to cook is turned into a comic bit, and most episodes have him playing the abashed fifth child, gently scolded by his wife for getting out of line. The Huxtables are a beautiful couple, but their relationship is fixed, preserved in amber. Looked at today, in the shadow of Cosby’s monstrous crimes, it’s now woefully inauthentic, with each life lesson stained by moral hypocrisy.
The Americans, meanwhile, offers a sham marriage that feels more authentic by the season. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are soldiers for the Soviet cause, committed to serving their country by essentially sacrificing their lives without dying (or at least before dying). The series begins in the early ’80s, with the Jennings already set up as a nondescript, middle-to-upper-class American family: nce home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.; two children, Paige and Henry; respectable business as travel agents. We initially accept the premise of KGB agents living double lives in America — it sounds like the stuff of a sexy Cold War thriller.
And yet it goes darker and deeper than that. Over time, the extent of their sacrifice starts to sink in. We better realize that they’ve come to this marriage as strangers and developed feelings for each other over time, which is the exact opposite of how a normal relationship works. We realize that having children is much as a front as the travel-agent business and just as subject to the machinations of the state, no matter their parental instinct to protect them from harm. No matter that an FBI agent happens to live across the street: Their mission is already fatally compromised by a phony life that’s become real, like the roots of a hairpiece that’s grown into their head.
Philip and Elizabeth have to exploit, betray, and kill, frequently harming people who don’t deserve it. They’re routinely forced into infidelity and have to manage the emotional fallout, which can be severe. And though they’re known to be rebellious on occasion, they have to follow orders. All the while, they’re being indoctrinated into American culture and to the community around them, and they’re having to think about how Paige and Henry should be raised on enemy terrain, exposed to values they ostensibly abhor. As the early ’80s creep toward Perestroika, their mission drifts in kind, which forces them to consider their true identities and what their future might look like together.
As Philip and Elizabeth, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have defined their characters so sharply that we can see all the fault lines in their relationship, the areas where their commitment to each other and their country are most vulnerable to cracking open. Elizabeth is the stronger of the two, still clinging to Soviet ideology — or, at least, clinging to the notion that she’s doing a valuable service to her country; Philip wavers tragically, suffocated by guilt and shame, and more assimilated into American culture than he would care to admit. They’re bonded together like soldiers in the trenches, having seen and perpetrated horrors that can’t be confessed, and their marriage has become a genuine, loving partnership, which makes their situation all the more soul-sickening.
Yet The Americans is as much about ’80s family values as The Cosby Show, and Philip and Elizabeth are as thoughtful and sensitive about how they raise their children as Cliff and Clair Huxtable, if not as blanketed by righteousness. When they sit in the living room with Paige and Henry, watching The Day After with the rest of America, they’re like any other family unit, shaken by the threat of nuclear holocaust. They just have different ideas about how to stop it from happening. It’s at moments like these that the Jennings reveal a wish common to all parents: that their children can inherit a better world than the one they know. What’s more, their marriage is dynamic and fluid, subject to an ever-changing set of circumstances. Watching them try to square their divided loyalties, week after agonizing week, is what makes this show riveting television.
WINNER: PHILIP AND ELIZABETH