Can We Ever Watch “The Cosby Show” Again?

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The news that Bill Cosby has been accused of multiple rapes from the ‘70s and ‘80s has been as dispiriting as it’s been hard to fathom. My God! If BILL COSBY can allegedly be a rapist, what’s next? Pope Francis a drug lord? Mother Teresa an embezzler?

The human mind is capable of tremendous denial, and the allegations against Cosby are clearly the kinds of things we’d prefer not to dwell on. If we examine them too closely, they would undermine the foundational beliefs that help us get through the day. This denialism is practiced by football fans who ignore the fact that they’re watching athletes literally blow their brains out for the audience’s enjoyment, by feminists who turned a blind eye against the numerous sexual assault allegations made against Bill Clinton in the 1980s, and by anybody who’s been a serious fan.

But there’s no escaping the Cosby story. So many accusers have come forward, and their stories are so similar that it’s impossible to brush them aside.  And even taking into account the presumption of innocence, the lack of criminal prosecutions, etc., etc., we will probably never look at Bill Cosby the same way again.

Which brings us to the problem of “The Cosby Show,” one of the most wholesome and popular shows in television history. Is it possible to watch that show now with any degree of enjoyment?

This quandary is similar to the angst of Woody Allen fans who felt conflicted when allegations that he’d molested his young adoptive daughter resurfaced a couple of years ago. But at least Allen’s early persona was that of a mildly depraved sex maniac; there wasn’t such a huge disconnect between the allegations and the face he presented to the public.

But Bill Cosby was supposed to be about as far from being a sexual predator as you could possibly get. As recently as September, the publication of Mark Whitaker’s bio “Cosby: His Life and Times” set off another wave of reminiscence and celebration focusing on his breakthrough as the first black actor to co-star in a network TV show (“I Spy”) and then as the Every Dad on “The Cosby Show,” the very embodiment of upper-middle-class aspiration for white and black families alike.

The question of whether you can separate the art from the artist is one that has preoccupied critics and fans for centuries. On the issue of anti-Semitism, Jews have long debated whether they could enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the philosophical musings of Soren Kierkegaard. The list of allegedly racist artists is long as well, including Flannery O’Conner, Ted Nugent and anyone born before 1900. Then there’s Mel Gibson, an equal-opportunity offender. Can we consume any of these artists’ art with a clean conscience?

There’s a whole school of thought that says you can love the art but hate the artist. This is one of those philosophies that sounds good in theory but collapses when confronted with the messiness of real life. The truth is, we’re all full of hypocrisies. We want to be moral but don’t want to spend 24 hours a day judging whether people are worthy of our admiration or condemnation. And we’re willing to make accommodations if it’s in our interest. When we learn that an artist has been accused of something, we make a number of quick and dirty calculations: How bad is the offense? Is it a crime against our own race, religion, national origin, gender, etc. and if not, how empathetic do we feel about people in those demographic groups?  How badly does the offense contravene our image of the perpetrator? How likely is it that he or she is guilty? How much do we love the work, and are we really willing to give up our attachment to it? Is it possible to conveniently forget we ever heard of the offense?

For TV stars, the calculation is even more complicated because it’s almost impossible to disassociate the screen presence from the role.  You can read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” without thinking about T.S. Eliot’s peculiar personality, but you can’t watch Dr. Cliff Huxtable on TV without connecting the character to Bill Cosby, the alleged serial rapist.

Life is unfair. Throughout history artists have been scoundrels, sinners and lawbreakers, but we can only pass judgment on the offenses we know about. There have certainly been bad guy artists who have gotten away with their crimes scot-free. And even after artists are exposed, some still get a free pass because the media chooses not to pile on. The allegations against Cosby were known to the public for decades, and we collectively decided to turn a blind eye until new ones surfaced in the wake of Whitaker’s laudatory biography  But now Cosby finds himself in a media firestorm — even though nothing is really that different except for the media attention and the higher number of accusers.

Without passing judgment on Cosby’s legal guilt or innocence, it seems hard to believe we’ll be able to watch “The Cosby Show” in good conscience for many years to come. I don’t feel particularly good admitting that I might not have reached that conclusion if there hadn’t been blanket media coverage of the accusations. But no matter how tortuously we reached this point, I’m afraid “The Cosby Show” needs to go into the vault for a long time.

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