(CNN)The title perfectly captures the tone of “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” conveying the reluctance and unease felt by Bill Cosby’s longtime fans as accusations of sexual assault dismantled his legacy. In that sense, director W. Kamau Bell has made a four-part docuseries as much about what happens when heroes let you down as the man himself.
In order to do that, Bell (the comic who also hosts a show for CNN) must start by establishing what a towering figure Cosby represented over a half-century span that began in the 1960s, helping viewers understand his genius to fully appreciate the body blow that the allegations against him delivered.
In one especially illuminating clip, Jerry Seinfeld calls the string of comedy albums that Cosby released an unmatched pinnacle in standup. That observation comes during a 2017 appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, where Colbert agrees with the sentiment, but quickly adds that he can no longer listen to those records, a view Seinfeld questioned before conceding that it was perhaps impossible to separate the artist from the person.
Bell also provides necessary context by juxtaposing the discussion of Cosby’s accomplishments with interviews featuring several of his alleged victims of the more than 60 that have come forward, detailing strikingly similar accounts of how Cosby had gained their trust, and the confusion and shame that silenced them until the floodgates opened in the 2010s.
Cosby, who has consistently denied the allegations, was convicted on sexual-assault charges in 2018. That conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year, citing a violation of Cosby’s due-process rights. In advance of the Showtime premiere, a representative for Cosby issued a lengthy statement again denying all the allegations.
As the Boston Globe’s Renee Graham notes, Cosby in the ’60s “wasn’t ruffling any feathers,” becoming so popular by crossing over to a White audience with broadly universal material, winning Emmys for “I Spy” and headlining comedy clubs. (An interesting anecdote involves Cosby insisting on hiring Black stuntmen to double him, which wasn’t commonly done at the time.)
Although he starred in several short-lived series during the ’70s and had a hit-miss run in movies, he also produced “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” a children’s show that heightened his status as a moral authority.
Still, his crowning achievement would come in the 1980s, shifting his comedy to parenthood with the concert film “Bill Cosby: Himself,” followed by “The Cosby Show,” an enormous hit that cemented his status as “America’s dad,” and which made the later allegations all the more jarring to those who associated him with that image.
Underscoring what Cosby’s success achieved and didn’t, that sitcom’s final episode aired in 1992 amid rioting in Los Angeles triggered by the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Black motorist Rodney King. As Graham puts it, “As this utopia ends, reality comes crashing in.”
Interviewed by Bell, Cosby’s one-time admirers share many of the same conflicted thoughts, particularly in watching a beloved Black personality dislodged from his pedestal.
That includes the shock upon hearing about the sexual-assault allegations, which journalist Jemele Hill calls “impossible to comprehend.” Author/educator Jelani Cobb says, “You don’t often learn that your heroes are really the worst sorts of villain.” And Bell, functioning as narrator and interviewer, says, “I wanted to hold on to my memories of Bill Cosby before I knew about Bill Cosby.”
Graham, more bluntly, joins others in redefining Cosby’s legacy, calling him a sexual predator “who had a really big TV show once.”
The docuseries also makes the case that Cosby helped initiate his own public demise. Having chosen to lecture the Black community about perpetuating cycles of poverty, he became a target of criticism that included the viral video by comic Hannibal Buress in 2014, which played a role in prompting a wider conservation about who Cosby really was.
Fundamentally, though, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” isn’t strictly about Cosby, but rather what happens when reality collides with the well-crafted images churned out by Hollywood and magazines. Even today, Bell says, “It feels like we haven’t gotten to the root of the discussion.”
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” won’t end the conversation, since Cosby was hardly the first celebrity to experience a fall from grace and won’t be the last. But in presenting the issue with a level of nuance that’s often elusive, Bell and company have significantly advanced it.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” premieres Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.