For five seasons, the award-winning ABC sitcom Black-ish has been addressing with pitch-perfect humor hard-hitting issues of social justice, the complexity of Blackness, the breakdown of the Black family and more. But is the series about to fall into an unnecessary trope?
After a few seasons, if a show is experiencing a lag in storytelling or audience engagement, showrunners bring in a younger, sometimes troubled kid to liven up the plot. This trope is called “Cousin Oliver,” or, in the case of a female character, “Cousin Pam.”
This month, brilliant young actress Quvenzhané Wallis— the youngest in history to be nominated for an Oscar— starts her arc as Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) cousin Kyra. Kyra comes to stay with Dre’s family once her mother can’t take care of her anymore. Sounds like a textbook Cousin Pam.
While Wallis is a fantastic actress and Black-ish is a great show, we still can’t predict how this trope will impact the show just yet. But we can take a look through the history of the Cousin Oliver/Cousin Pam trope.
Cousin Oliver is one of the most well-known characters in television history—for all the wrong reasons. Cousin Oliver (Robbie Rist) was brought into the fifth (and last) season of 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch once the child stars got older and the show wanted to keep a youthful demographic. Cousin Oliver, however, didn’t help the show maintain ratings, and both he and the show went away. As a character, Cousin Oliver added nothing to the show; fans of the show grew up with the Brady kids and had no ties to Cousin Oliver and found him to be plain annoying, distancing audiences even further from The Brady Bunch.
Cousin Pam (Erika Alexander) came on the scene in The Cosby Show‘s seventh season as a second cousin to Clair Huxtable. Younger than Vanessa but older than Rudy, the street-smart teen came to live with the upper-middle-class Huxtables when her single mom had to move across the country. Though The Cosby Show was the number one show on TV for four years, ratings significantly dropped in the seventh season with The Cosby Show ending in its eighth year with the lowest-ever ratings for the ground-breaking show.
The Cousin Oliver/Pam trope has haunted many a Black sitcom over the years.
Good Times brought in a young Janet Jackson as Penny, the Evans’ neighbor who lived with her abusive mother until Wilona (Ja’Net DuBois) adopted her.
Diff’rent Strokes added Sam (Danny Cooksey) in its final seasons once Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges) grew up.
Similarly, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air added little cousin Nicky (Ross Bagley) to the show when Will and Carlton (Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro) moved to college and when Ashley (Tatyana Ali) became a teenager.
Family Matters went the “troubled child” route with 3J (Orlando Brown), the adopted son of Harriette and Carl Winslow (Jo Marie Payton and Reginald VelJohnson), who is supposed to be likable despite his annoying troublemaking ways. What made him particularly unlikable was how it was obvious 3J was added so the show could include more “urban” flavor. But most of his characterizations were stereotypical.
Moesha’s (Brandy Norwood) cousin-turned-brother, Dorian (Norwood’s real-life brother Ray J) on Moesha was another stereotypical street-smart teen meant to exceptionalize Moesha’s family.
That’s So Raven also took a stereotypical approach with Sydney (Sydney Park), a foster child who antagonizes Raven (Raven-Symoné) before becoming Raven’s mentee.
All of these characters vary in their degrees of annoyance. Characters like Penny and Nicky are quite beloved by fans, so much so that they seem to have become an intractable part of the fabric of their respective shows. Other characters are more neutral, like Cousin Pam, who is well-acted by Alexander, who went on to star on the iconic Living Single in her best-known role to date, Maxine Shaw. But then there are the others, like Sydney, who only stuck around for three episodes in the fourth season. The show later ended in 2007, one year after Sydney’s arrival and departure. Sam stuck around on Diff’rent Strokes for 48 episodes, but his longevity wasn’t well-received. Complex’s Frantz Rocher described Sam as “one of the most annoying and unnecessary characters ever foisted upon the innocent public in television’s history.” If that wasn’t enough, he also called the character “whiny” and “aimless.”
It’s one thing for a character to be merely annoying, but it’s another for them to be the product of a writers room’s cynicism about Black audiences. Characters like Dorian and 3J were brought on purely as a misguided attempt to appeal to younger Black viewers. However, all they did was spread stereotypes about the “urban” youth. These characters were in line with how ill-informed non-Black studios attempted to write Black characters, what with their supposedly hip lingo, baggy pants, and a vague interest in rap. The characters’ troubled backgrounds didn’t help matters.
The latter two characters exemplify some of the worries people have about Kyra; will she just perpetuate stereotypes that most Black families are dysfunctional? Will she inadvertently make the Johnsons seem like an exception to the rule in a similar way 3J, Dorian and even Cousin Pam made the Winslows, the Mitchells and the Huxtables seem?
Time will tell. But the award-winning show’s creator Kenya Barris has proven with Black-ish is that he understands the importance of nuance in Black art and Blackness in general. Perhaps Kyra will be a parody of the trope that will reveal a deeper truth that will spark much-needed dialogue. What we do know for sure is that Wallis can act her butt off. Black-ish is consistently funny and thought-provoking; if there’s any show that can pull of a late-addition character with freshness, it’s Black-ish.