Watching We Need to Talk About Cosby, the new docuseries from W. Kamau Bell, felt a little like spending hours on Twitter. I learned almost nothing new. I heard countless opinions I had heard before. As on Twitter, the emphasize is on framing: Who can summarize this horribly messy, infuriating situation as pithily and memorably as possible, in a way that may feel like justice, if not closure?
With the redundancy of scrolling through tweets, the doc reminds us again and again of the same basic facts: Bill Cosby is a TV and comedy legend who has made innumerable contributions to both, and broken countless barriers for Black people in the entertainment industry, but whose achievements may well be eclipsed by his more recent reputation as a ruthless serial sexual predator.
The four-part doc features comedians, professors, people who briefly worked with Cosby, and accusers who share remarkably similar accounts. Some — particularly these brave women — offer valuable insight. Other participants openly struggle with how they feel. The best summary may be one offered at the beginning and end of the series: “He was a rapist who had a really big TV show once.”
But the biggest similarity between We Need to Talk About Cosby and Twitter: I couldn’t stop watching.
Whether or not we need to talk about Cosby, some of us want to talk about Cosby, a lot: He personifies the “can you separate the art from the artist” debate perfectly, because, as Bell pointedly notes, his public and private behavior seem so diametrically opposed.
The docuseries, which debuted at Sundance and will begin airing his weekend on Showtime, includes one piece of information I didn’t already know: Cosby did great work expanding opportunities for Black stunt performers when he starred on the drama I Spy in the 1960s.
Like everyone who grew up watching Cosby, or has read his Wikipedia page, I was familiar with the other key facts Bell presents: Cosby was the first Black man to win an Emmy for best dramatic actor for I Spy; he won it three years in a row; he is acclaimed (or used to be) as one of the greatest standup comedians of all time; he led The Cosby Show, the top show on TV for the latter half of the ’80s, which presented a groundbreaking primetime portrait of a rich Black family; he sold everything from Coke to Jell-O Pudding Pops, and he spawned countless impersonations. (Comedian Godfrey is among those who skillfully mimic him during the doc.) Bill Cosby also wrote books like Fatherhood, which 11-year-old me bought my dad for Father’s Day 1986.
And as everyone also knows, Cosby’s wholesome image utterly collapsed in 2014, when comedian Hannibal Buress called him a rapist onstage, renewing interest in previously reported but largely ignored accusations. That in turn inspired about 60 women to come forward, most of whom shared very similar accounts of Cosby giving them pills and then raping them. Bill Cosby himself admitted in a 2005 deposition that he obtained quaaludes to give to young women he wanted to have sex with.
Usually, during the Twitter pile-ons in which thousands of people try to outdo each other in their angry/witty denunciations of someone widely despised, some devil’s advocate will pop up to say: Wait, has this person ever been convicted of anything? Shouldn’t he get his day in court, or be cleared of the accusations, rather than accosted by a Twitter mob?
I often sympathize with this position. I think courts are better than Twitter at determining guilt.
But in the case of Bill Cosby, the courts completely failed us all — especially the women. One Pennsylvania prosecutor essentially promised Cosby immunity, and his successor, years later, cast aside that promise to charge Cosby with raping Andrea Constand. A jury unanimously believed her, and convicted Cosby. He was sent to prison.
Justice served? No. Because last June, Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled that the second prosecutor was wrong to go back on his predecessor’s promise, and Cosby was released from prison and allowed to return home to his palatial Pennsylvania estate. Cosby is unlikely to ever be prosecuted over the other approximately 60 accusations because of the passage of time and statutes of limitations.
Whether you believe the first prosecutor blew it, or the second, or both, it was an appalling failure. The legal system, in this case, was even more reckless and messy than the sloppy, fuming masses on social media. The courts blew it so publicly and totally, the documentary notes, that victims in future cases may be less likely to come forward.
Which leaves social media — and docs like this one — as the only way for people to collectively process, vent, mourn, and rage against the hideousness of the situation.
We need to talk about Cosby, and talk, and talk. Because that’s all we can do.
The first episode of We Need to Talk About Cosby airs this Sunday on Showtime.