Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 7, 2013)
When Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids debuted in 1972, I was all of five years old and in the animated seriesí target audience Ė I guess. I think five was about the right age for the show; though it would appeal to older kids as well Ė and was probably meant more for them Ė it still worked for little ones.
Culturally, whether I fit the Albert target audience seems more questionable, as a show about poor inner city black kids might not sound intended for a middle-class suburban white boy. I donít think any of that mattered, though. I never viewed the series in racial/societal terms; I just thought the adventures of Fat Albert and his pals were funny.
I doubt Iíve watched Fat Albert since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, so I was curious to give it a look Ė a curiosity encouraged by the release of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Complete Series. This 15-DVD set includes all 110 episodes of the series across its three different incarnations. The original Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids aired from September 1972 through October 1976 and covered 36 episodes. 14 of these arrived in the fall of 1972 and eight more came in fall 1973. After no new material in 1974, six programs encompassed Season 3 in 1975 and the series finished with eight Season 4 shows in the fall of 1976.
The franchise left the air three years before it returned as The New Fat Albert Show. It included 24 episodes and went from September 1979 until September 1981; it spanned three eight-episode ďseasonsĒ, with one each autumn.
Finally, The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids arrived in September 1984. While the two prior series ran exclusively in the fall, this one presented 50 shows over a year, as each week delivered a new episode until it ended with the August 10, 1985 broadcast.
Despite the different incarnations, the format/premise remains the same across all three series. Set in Philadelphia, the franchise loosely bases the characters and situations on those creator Bill Cosby experienced in his youth, though it presents them in then-current eras; itís a period series now but that wasnít the case when the shows first aired. We spend a lot of time with a representation of Bill himself and his younger brother Russell as well as friends Fat Albert, Rudy, Dumb Donald, Weird Harold, Bucky and Mushmouth.
Essentially the stories show the daily lives of the kids while they encounter scenarios that always end up in a lesson of some sort. Though I normally watch the DVDs I review in their entirety, the enormity of this package made it impractical. To ensure Iíd not need to spend a month with the set, I chose to check out one episode per disc, so I examined a total of 15 shows.
Even over the span of 13 years, these remained pretty similar in execution. The programs would mix slightly sassy comedy and inevitable moral lessons. Intended as an educational series, Albert always teaches the viewer something, and with 110 episodes at its disposal, it touches on a wide range of topics such as fears of doctors/hospitals, bullies, respecting authority and so on.
As a kidís program, I think Albert holds up pretty well. While not exactly edgy, the seriesí humor proves to be surlier than one would expect from Saturday morning fare. The majority of the gags revolve around contentious relations among the various kids, so we get a lot of insults hurled among the characters. These donít become especially cruel, but they still deliver a certain insolence one doesnít usually get from this kind of show.
As far as the seriesí moralizing goes, it can be a bit heavy-handed Ė or at least thatís how it seems from an adultís perspective. I suspect kids wonít see it the same way, and even as a grown-up, I think the shows avoid too much preachiness. The programs come across as glib enough to help the lessons go down painlessly.
Fat Albert comes across as much less dated than I expected. Yeah, some of the hairstyles and fashions show their eras, and a few of the scenarios reflect the 70s/80s as well. Nonetheless, thereís not much about the humor that doesnít translate, and a lack of then-modern cultural references helps the series age well; at least in the programs I watched, Fat Albert didnít attempt to be especially topical, so the bits donít date it.
As a kidís show, I think Fat Albert still boasts a lot of merit, but I find it tougher to recommend for adults. I canít fault Cosby and company for that, as they never intended the series for grown-ups. Nonetheless, Cosbyís presence might elevate expectations that Fat Albert can please adults as well as kids, and thatís not terribly true.
This doesnít mean Fat Albert becomes a chore to watch for a grown-up, however. Indeed, the shows seem considerably more enjoyable than the average Saturday morning fare; most of that stuff is relentlessly inane, whereas Fat Albert comes with a reasonable level of cleverness. Itís just not a series that works especially well on an adult level; grown-ups can take mild entertainment from it but probably wonít really dig it.
I definitely donít see that as a flaw, though, and as a nostalgic exercise, I enjoyed my time with Fat Albert. No, I didnít derive a ton of amusement from it, but I think the series remains a high-quality combination of entertainment and education for elementary age kids. This was a solid series in my youth and it continues to hold up well.