Paean* to Vanessa Huxtable

Let’s be honest. Sitcom children are the worst. (See: Full House). They never look like their parents. They overact. They underact. They say stupid things. Sitcom children are usually very cute though, so their flaws are tolerated. (Except in the rare, horrible cases when they are neither cute nor good actors. See: the Olsen twins). Even Emmy-nominated Rudy Huxtable, who was so cute someone made this creepy music video of her on YouTube, is not immune.

But then there’s Vanessa.

Denise was cool. Rudy was cute. Theo was charming. But Vanessa was the best. Sure she lacked Denise’s eccentricity, Rudy’s cuteness, and Theo’s charisma. But her utter ordinariness is what makes her compelling. As embodied by Tempesst Bledsoe, she was the most realistic Cosby child on one of the most idealistic TV shows ever. 

Vanessa is eleven years old when we first meet her, too old to be cute. She’s unexceptional, neither very pretty nor very smart. She is nosy. Dramatic. The first time we see Vanessa in the inaugural episode, “Pilot Presentation,” she’s buttering a piece of toast and grooving to the radio along with the rest of her siblings. When Clair (Mrs. Huxtable) suggests they start eating, Vanessa responds with, “You know Mom, I think we should be allowed some moments of happiness.” It’s typical Vanessa, melodramatic, but as delivered by Bledsoe, just brimming with the sort of precociousness I am very familiar with.

Young Vanessa is the quintessential middle child, so she’s a natural born hustler. She’s hilariously self-absorbed, the consequence of being one among five. She has to clamor to be heard. Every one-on-one conversation with a parent becomes an opportunity to wring something out of them. It usually doesn’t work. But that doesn’t stop her from trying.

Here’s Vanessa a few minutes later in the same episode:

CLAIR: I didn’t get much sleep last night.

VANESSA: Mom, you know what you need, what we actually all could use, a nice soothing dog, a dog for all of us, a real family dog.

THEO:  We already have a family dog, you!

Vanessa plays with her food, eyes downward as she says oh so sweetly: All I wanted was an animal that starts with the same letter as most of your grades on your report card which you are getting today.

What a burn!

The lines as written for Vanessa are alright. It’s Bledsoe’s performance that really gives them power. Take Play it again Vanessa, ” in which Vanessa must practice the clarinet for her feature clarinet performance at a local concert.

CLIFF: I want you to practice.

VANESSA: I will as soon as I finish my homework.

CLIFF: How much homework do you have?

VANESSA: I have a history paper on the hundred years’ war.

CLIFF: Okay, how long will it take you?

VANESSA: About fifteen minutes.  She says this with just the right amount of confidence, not enough to launch her into Alex P. Keaton territory, but without the characteristic temerity of an untrained child actor.C’est parfait! 

But Bledsoe can also milk the pathos.

In “Vanessa’s New Class,” she has the difficult task of bottling in Vanessa’s wounded pride at her 14th place science fair finish, and Bledsoe succeeds. Vanessa’s shame manifests itself in little ways– long pauses, small digs at her friend Janet, who came in second. In the hands of another performer it would have felt so sitcom-y. But with Bledsoe it feels, dare I say real. No matter how ridiculous the idea of a 11 year-old building small robots are, Vanessa’s behavior does ring true.

As Vanessa ages, she grows boy crazy, less nosy, and more unpredictable. I learned the word ‘inebriation’ from a DirectTV summary blurb of “I’m with the In Crowd,” an episode that also taught me my first drinking game, that I have yet to play.

Then there’s “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall” when Vanessa and her girlfriend try and fail to start a new dance craze. (There’s a neon green bra stuffed with tissues. Enough said.) There’s that ridiculous Dabnes storyline, her sort-of fiance– the time Vanessa travels out of state to catch a concert. And as she grew older, she started working the ‘fro which I always appreciate.

Eventually Vanessa gets subsumed by Denise and then Pam and Olivia and Sondra and Melvin and the twins and Theo. She grows up, her eyes lose their childlike wonder. But I’ll always remember Vanessa. She really was the coolest.

*It’s not really a paean but whatevs.


2 Comments on “Paean* to Vanessa Huxtable”

  1. David says:

    If she was 11 and Rudy was 5 when the show started, she wouldn’t be a middle child psychologically.

    • tometome says:

      Well if we’re going to be technical, Theo is the middle child. The order is Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, Rudy. But Theo was also the only son. So I think she is a middle child psychologically, easy to miss among star-student Sondra, dramatic Denise and little Rudy.

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