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W. Kamau Bell asks all the right questions in 'We Need to Talk About Cosby'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Sunday, Showtime presents a new four-part, four-hour weekly documentary series directed by one Black comic examining the career, life and legacy of another. The director is W. Kamau Bell, and his subject is Bill Cosby. The title of the series is "We Need To Talk About Cosby," and our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: For W. Kamau Bell, making his documentary about Bill Cosby comes from a very personal place. He talks about loving and being influenced by Cosby's comedy albums when he was a kid. He talks about being 11 years old when "The Cosby Show" premiered on NBC in 1984 and how much of an impact that had on him as both a future comedian and a young Black TV viewer. And in "We Need To Talk About Cosby," he keeps it personal while talking about Cosby's more recent and troubling history with lots of other people. Some are fellow comics. Others are performers or writers from Cosby's hit TV show. And many are women who tell their stories of being drugged, victimized and assaulted by Cosby. Bell interviews people of different races, ages and genders, and all of them deal with the same still-sensitive subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY")

W KAMAU BELL: How do we talk about Bill Cosby? There's all the good he did and all the other things that I, and many other people, believe he did. So I invited some people to sit down and have the difficult conversation about Bill Cosby. And although lots of people said no, thankfully, some intelligent, brave and funny folks said yes.

BIANCULLI: The perspectives cover the spectrum. But when you hear them all at once, they tell their own larger story - the story of Bill Cosby, the actor and comedian who made and changed TV history not once, but twice. He did it first by becoming the first Black star of a drama series in the 1960s show "I Spy." And then he did it again, co-creating and starring in the most popular TV show of the mid-1980s, the family sitcom "The Cosby Show." But it's also the story of Cosby, the stand-up comic, Cosby, the national father figure, and Cosby, the increasingly vocal critic of certain Black comics and even certain Black attitudes and fashions that he found objectionable. And, of course, it's the story of Cosby, the accused and convicted sexual predator.

The first hours of "We Need To Talk About Cosby" explain his rise and his impact in pop culture generally and in the African American community especially. But they also introduce a parallel timeline. And as Cosby becomes more successful and powerful, the accusations against him become more plentiful. Bell listens closely to all of the voices in his documentary. And heard briefly in an introductory montage, they have a lot to say. They even have a lot to ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, boy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's one of the most successful comics in history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He is known as America's dad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Or a, quote-unquote, monster.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The juxtaposition is just bananas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: He was someone to believe in and someone to trust.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: But he wasn't the nice person that everybody thought he was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I look forward to seeing Bill Cosby again in a court of law.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Should I even be talking about this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: I know I'm going to get in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Deep Black girl sigh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Bill Cosby is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: One of the biggest predators in Hollywood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: He was a rapist who had a really big TV show once.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: An example of the complexity of humanity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What do you think, Kamau? What do you think?

BIANCULLI: Over the four hours of his documentary, Bell tells us. And when Kamau cites two key examples from "The Cosby Show," he chooses precisely the right clips - the show's best and most resonant scenes - the Monopoly game with son Theo from the pilot and the lip-syncing musical performance of the Ray Charles song "The Night Time Is The Right Time" (ph). Bell and his guests explain very persuasively why those were such seminal moments in TV history and in Black history. The stories the women tell throughout this series are unvarnished and emotional. But nothing is sensationalized or trivialized.

And Bell, in his interviews, keeps asking the right questions. In fact, he ends the series with what may well be the toughest question of all. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Can we still laugh at or enjoy Cosby's shows or comedy albums anymore? And even if we can, should we? I'm not sure what the answer is. Who can be? But I'm really glad someone like Bell is asking the questions and provoking the conversation.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new Showtime series "We Need To Talk About Cosby."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "SHOEFLIES")

DAVIES: On Monday's show, screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro, whose film "The Shape Of Water" won Oscars for best picture and best director. His new film, "Nightmare Alley," begins in 1939 in a small-time traveling carnival. We'll talk about del Toro's fascination with that world. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "SHOEFLIES")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.