One of the Google searches that hit the site recently was for “Bill Cosby Detective Show.” People remember Bill Cosby for his Comedy, particularly the ratings sensation, The Cosby Show. But, Bill Cosby did try his hand as a TV detective.
It was 1994 and Cosby’s first project after the end of the Cosby Show and his choice was the Cosby Mysteries which followed recently retired police officer, Guy Hanks as he found himself retired after a heart attack and winning the lottery on the same day, but still drawn back to serve as criminologist solving cases for the NYPD or occasionally private clients.
The mysteries were well-written with surprising twist and turns, and plenty of tension. The character of Guy Hanks was typical Cosby. There was always the light touches that are in most Cosby Characters (going back to Kelly Robinson in I Spy.) He and Police Detective Adam Sully (played by James Naughton) had good chemistry. He also had a good sidekick in aspiring young criminologist, Dante (Mos Def.) Cosby as an elder mentor always make for good entertainment.
The show had some fantastic episodes. My favorite featured Douglas Adams (writer of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as a husband who runs into Hanks at the Party and has a discussion about the art of murder because he’s about to murder his own wife, and Hanks has to stop him without leaving the party. In another, his Cosby show wife, Phylicia Rashad played an old flame and competing criminologist.
It was a fun show that sadly lasted only for 19 episodes. There are a number of reasons why. Cosby pointed to the timeslot quipping that with the Cosby Mysteries, “The biggest mystery was when it was on.”
The show may simply have come too late. Cosby chose to make the show a character-driven detective story rather than using violence and sensationalism to gain ratings. The PG Detective shows that had been popular through much of the 1970s and 1980s with TV shows like the Rockford Files, Quincy, and Magnum PI, were passing from the scene.
Matlock had been forced to jump networks from NBC to ABC in 1992. The 1990s saw CBS fail with a revival of Burke’s Law and later in the 1990s drew a blank with Buddy Faro. Angela Lansbury continued to have success with Murder She Wrote, though that would also disappear in 1996.
The TV mystery and cop series that would take to the air in the 1990s and since have tended to be more lurid and violent, and to really sell the show based on that. Of course, there are exceptions, but the PG detective show may be the hardest one to make today.
The Cosby Mysteries’ biggest problem may not have been that there was something wrong with the series but not enough right. Two truly sucessful PG Detective shows that each managed eight seasons on the air were Diagnosis Murder. (1993-2001) and Monk (2001-2009). Both shows succeeded by being more than detective shows. The quirky Mark Sloan and the Neurotic Adrian Monk made for shows that you didn’t have to be a mystery fan to enjoy, with plenty of comedy. In Diagnosis Murder’s case, they also made use of guest stars, bringing several old TV detectives back to television such as Mannix, Adam 12 co-stars Martin Milner and Kent McCord, and Andy Griffith as Matlock, after Matlock was cancelled by a second network.
The biggest problem with the Cosby Mysteries was that its creators didn’t understand that a good mystery wasn’t enough to hold an audience. Still, fans of good mysteries would do well to give the Cosby Mysteries a look if they see it on reruns. Unfortunately, the show has not been released on DVD.