When Friends hit Netflix in January, a nonstop, nauseating celebration followed. When A Different World got added in March, there was much quieter jubilation, mostly in black circles. This was a series that had as much influence—if not more—than its precursor, The Cosby Show, and found a space for an audience of black kids with a future fantasy. For any pre-collegiate viewer, it was just as iconic and aspirational—even if you were light years from that place in life.
The concept alone was fresh: black college life. Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) was headed to Hillman, her father’s alma mater. We’d get to meet all her new friends and watch her fuck up royally on her own. More than expected, the Cosby spinoff turned out to be smart, witty, hilarious, real, and effervescent. It still holds up. I was only four years old when it debuted (in 1987). I didn’t watch it religiously yet. But by the mid-’90s, I was catching it after The Cosby Show like everyone else. Repeats were in heavy rotation.
Any mention of A Different World now brings out some pseudo-statistic about black students attending an HBCU because of it. For me, the show played a role in my choosing Cosby’s alma mater Temple, which then had a roughly 35 percent diverse student body. After a year, I transferred to Theo’s school, NYU. In the back of my mind, I figured those places were good enough for the Huxtables.
A Different World—and its primarily black cast—was a preview of all the bougie, brainy and cool archetypes you figured you’d someday meet. Debbie Allen directed and produced seasons two through six. This was a blessed period when black TV shows flourished. It’s still hard to imagine we used to go home and watch Martin and Living Single back-to-back, without having to consider that their existence alone was magic.
Over the last year, the appeal of black life on TV has once again come full circle. In February, The L.A. Times ran a piece detailing how programs like Empire, Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder are “bringing more diverse faces to prime time, but also are harnessing the power of black viewers.” It reads a lot like similar articles written in the era of A Different World.
There’s a story in the October 1987 issue of Ebony titled “New Faces for TV’s New Season,” in between ads for Seagram’s Gin and Sta-Sof-Fro. It documents a new dawn of black people on primetime TV and mentions 227, Amen, In Living Color, and A Different World, referring to NBC as the network with “the largest number of black characters on network television.” The piece ends with a gloomy conclusion: Despite these strides, “for blacks, television this fall will virtually remain the same.”
In the May 20, 1991 issue of Jet, you can find “TV Discovers That Black Shows Bring In Big Buck$.” It also mentions Amen, In Living Color, and A Different World, but it’s much more hopeful, citing a Nielsen study that black people accounted for 49 percent more hours of TV viewing than other demos.
As usual, things changed. In a 1996 edition of the Miami Herald titled “Big Networks Living With Less Color,” author Herman Gray is quoted referencing the migration of black shows to WB and UPN (what we lovingly nicknamed the “nigga networks”) as a factor in nonexistent major-network programming starring people of color. A May 2008 trend piece in The Los Angeles Times eulogizes black shows post-Girlfriends. A 2011 BET essay wonders, “Where Are All the Black TV Shows?”
Great shows prevailed in the famine years (Everybody Hates Chris), alongside questionable ones (Homeboys in Outer Space). Then came Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder and Black-ish and Empire. To the naked eye, this prosperity is a “diversity trend.” To the cynical eye, it’s just another phase, with Empire leading the way and yet barely making a dent. To Deadline, it’s a tragedy.
This year, A Different World turns 28 years old, which is an age that’s rarely celebrated. (Except by people like Oprah, who aired a reunion special on OWN in 2014.) When Netflix added the series to its library, I committed to re-upping for pure enjoyment—and because Empire was a wrap and my DVR queue was looking thin. Plus, one of my favorite Twitter accounts, @BlackGirlNerds, had been live-tweeting episodes. Bill Cosby wasn’t going to keep me from it.
The first thing I noticed in the pilot for A Different World was the opening theme song, which I’m pretty sure I mumbled out loud every time I watched it in the ‘90s.
The other thing I noticed was the tragically low-res 4:3 screen ratio. I sucked it up and kept watching anyway, feeling like Whitley (see below) for a second, annoyed at the barbarity of no widescreen HD.
I know my parents love me/ Stand behind me come what may
I know now that I’m ready/ because I finally heard them say
It’s a different world/ from where you come from
Here’s a chance to make it/ if we focus on our goals
If we dish it we can take it/ just remember what you’ve been told
It’s a different world/ from where you come from
I always took this as somewhat of a cautionary tale: succeed against the odds because the real world is ugly. Be twice as good.
Denise Huxtable had a diverse group of friends. There was the above-mentioned Whitley, the snobbish Virginian with the grating voice—Jasmine Guy says she copied a third-grade teacher’s accent—who has a “Miss Magnolia” sash hanging in her dorm room. There’s also Jaleesa (played by Dawnn Lewis), the independent and grown 26-year-old divorcée; Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison), the math whiz and quasi-lothario who hopelessly crushes on Denise; his bespectacled troublemaker friend Ron (Darryl M. Bell); and Denise’s bubbly redhead roomie Maggie, played by Marisa Tomei. Marisa. Tomei. (Loretta Divine also appears in the first season).
Half of these kids were eclectic, nerdy outsiders—not exactly cool. But it was cool that they were comfortable in their whatever-ness.
Denise was an effortless exception, as the quirky, naive, indecisive flower child. I marveled at her wardrobe, more so now than back then. Then, I had no sense of fashion. Denise frequently wore oversized menswear and vintage finds with all the boldness of a toddler showing off a mismatched ensemble.
In retrospect, there’s nothing that fascinating about Denise. She spends the majority of her freshman year as an atrocious student. Season one revolves around her failing grades and laziness. She gets Cs if she’s lucky and can barely make it to track practice. Her annoying epic failures would be unbelievable if we didn’t all know students like that in real life.
At the least, Denise is determined to be independent—with no discipline or follow-through—and doesn’t want her parents, Cliff and Clair Huxtable, to pay her way through college. At one point, Clair visits the campus and refuses to let Denise spend the summer in Paris because of her horrific grades.
I realize now that I related to her frazzled state of mind. I entered Temple University as an Undecided student (I stayed in the “Undecided” wing as a freshman, which was okay because it was fancy). I simultaneously had no idea what I wanted to do and wanted to do everything. One of my best friends there went from wanting to major in psychology and ended up studying film. Really, we weren’t all that different from Denise.
Job hunting and moneymaking is a realistic dilemma on this series. Jaleesa works in the kitchen. Denise lands a job there, too, after she phones home (on a pay phone in the hallway at Gilbert Hall) and can’t quite break it to Cliff that she needs $200 for dorm fees that month.
This is the point where I groaned outwardly and had to consider if I should stop watching because of Bill Cosby’s appearances, and the fact that the show is his creation. His cameos are minimal, though, and this series’ importance surpasses his revolting past.
The students, refreshingly, have a practical concern for making money because making money in college is as much of a struggle as passing grades. Later, in season three, Dwayne gets an off-campus apartment with Ron and worries about wasting toilet paper and paying utilities. Lena—who comes on in season five, played by Jada Pinkett—sells gumbo to make extra cash.
At Temple, I signed up for work study to help pay for food, supplies, expenses and, really, partying and Smirnoff Ice. During my first semester, I got an on-campus job in the digital studio (where students edited video, etc.) and made my first beats. This inspired me to double major in digital engineering (or whatever it was called) and journalism. I reluctantly switched to just journalism after transferring to NYU. It worked out.
In its fictional portrayal of college life, A Different World also shows the students legitimately learning. Term papers, grades, tutoring and asshole professors are the norm. There are tons of scenes featuring the main cast sitting in a classroom and it’s not just for scenery. In a season two episode, Dwayne Wayne questions the relevance of a poetry class in the scheme of life. If you didn’t know how the Grand Canyon was formed, then you learned a little about it in the episode where some of the female student body (including Kim Wayans) wear stilettos to impress a hot geography teacher played by David Alan Grier (an interesting choice to play a hot geography teacher). Denise ends up falling for him in a weird, awkward storyline.
There’s a comfortable flow and ease to this show that makes it easy to digest. It’s like you’re really watching your friends in college, and it’s as silly and topical as any other sitcom. The “black jokes” are as natural as they should be, even when they’re a little too obvious. That girl “runs out like she’s Florence Griffith Joyner.” Dwayne wants a date with “big butt Brenda from the Bronx.” Whitley makes fun of Dwayne’s ashy knees.
Within the first 30 seconds of the season two premiere (which now features Aretha Franklin singing the theme), Ron (who looks like he’s wearing a Zoot suit) teases Dwayne (who’s wearing a fly gray tweed blazer with the sleeves rolled up) about his crush Denise not coming back. When Lisa Bonet got pregnant and left A Different World, producers wrote into The Cosby Show that she dropped out of Hillman. Huge disappointment.
In the opening, we see my spirit sister Jaleesa in a glorious cropped ‘do. She wears outfits like this.
The women have big curly ‘80s hair and the guys are in acid wash denim, reminding me again that style was a major appeal of A Different World. I’m sure plenty of teens watched and pulled inspiration from not only Denise’s bohemian looks, but also Ron’s Sherlock Holmes swag and Dwayne’s cool-nerd wear.
“Our job is to perpetuate and enhance the visual look of the characters. I thought Kadeem should be more sophisticated. It was time to get him out of those goofball glasses... College kids are’t trendy, because they can’t afford it. They have pieces they can mix and match.”
Without Denise, A Different World became more of an ensemble show. Dwayne Wayne is equal parts charm, goofiness and confidence in a pair of flip glasses, and never the clear-cut hunk. This was a good thing. Kanye West has a line on “The Glory” that implies Dwayne is a downgrade (“Two years Dwayne Wayne became Dwayne Wade”). This is categorically false.
Ron, a straight-C student, has a bigger presence, which is for the better. As the scheming best friend, he’s a hilarious foil for Dwayne. Ron tells him, “Brother, you’re missing the whole point of college. We are here to load up on fun so we won’t need to have any when we’re married.” Dwayne jokes a few episodes later, “Sometimes you do things I only see in cartoons.”
My spirit brother Mr. Gaines, the kitchen’s resident Oscar the Grouch, is low-key hilarious (a sample quote from him: “I’ma get myself a sign that says: ‘No talking to yourself.’”). And Sinbad rounds out the supporting cast as Walter, the dorm’s Resident Director who becomes Jaleesa’s boyfriend.
Season two also introduces Whitley’s new roommate, Kim, and Jaleesa’s new roomie, the free-spirited and sporty Winifred, aka Freddie, played iconically by Cree Summer. She’s a worthy oddball replacement for Denise but with much more spunk and sportiness.
Most notably, Bonet’s absence really lets Jasmine Guy’s flair for comedic melodrama shine. Guy is incredibly committed to playing the role of a prissy, uptight, judgmental diva. In season two’s first episode, she admits to the dorm director Lettie that she’s a virgin and had a wet dream about Dwayne—they call it a “hot dream.” This sets in motion the will-they, won’t-they between Whitley and Dwayne that plays out through the remaining seasons.
One noticeable difference from here on is that there’s a clear mission to air episodes with a message, whether it’s a “special” episode about the AIDS epidemic (Tisha Campbell plays a student who’s HIV-positive) or commentary on the L.A. riots.
Kim gets pregnant and openly says, “I don’t want an abortion.” After Dwayne and Ron spike punch at a party, Freddie becomes an obnoxious alcoholic who drinks in the school library. Dwayne leads a rally to occupy Dean Hughes’ office after his radio show is taken off the air when he plays a raunchy record. It’s meant to promote the power of free speech, civil disobedience and activism. It makes me wonder how a plot like this might play out in a black college show set in 2015, given the similarities of the era.
“This is so incredible,” Freddie says at one point. “They say our generation is apathetic, self centered, materialistic. Just look at us.” Ron responds, “You know where I can plug in my electric blanket?”
As with any coming-of-age sitcom, love is a major theme in A Different World. The students are constantly balancing dating and flirting with studies. The rom-com aspect is stepped up even more in season three, which is when Jalessa and Walter’s relationship blossoms to the point that they arrange a wedding at the school before getting cold feet and calling it off.
Walter has so many sexist, Neanderthal qualities (he makes jokes about women belonging in the kitchen) that I wonder how in the world Jaleesa, who’s clearly a feminist, is attracted to him. Jaleesa calls him out once for letting one of his male residents entertain a young woman in his room, when he wouldn’t have done the same for a female student.
But it’s the relationship between Dwayne and his opposite, Whitley, that really makes this show. It’s the one thing everyone remembers, if nothing else.
Season three builds on the tension of that romance, when Dwayne returns after summer newly suave and spends much of his time trying to convince Whitley that he’s the one.
While Dwayne embraces his feelings, Whitley perpetually friend-zones him and even tries to fix him up on a date. With 22-25 episodes per season, it’s a long journey.
After binge-watching through season three, I started skipping past episodes and focusing instead on the ones with blurbs that pulled me in, i.e.:
Dwayne writes a poem about his greatest passion—math—but Whitley thinks it’s about her. Freddie feels bad about seeing two different guys.
Dwayne gets inducted in Phi Beta Kappa, prompting a visit from his proud mama. Whitley is disappointed when Julian doesn’t pop the question. [PATTI LABELLE PLAYS DWAYNE WAYNE’S MOM.]
Whitley accepts a date with Ron to make Dwayne jealous, while Ron hopes to change her feelings. The students vie for coveted spots in a history class.
It’s not until season four, after tons of game playing, back and forth and intimate moments, that Whitley and Dwayne officially become a couple and go through an engagement and then a breakup.
This brings me to a mega moment in black TV history: the season five finale where Dwayne interrupts Whitley’s wedding ceremony. Her groom, Byron, is played by Scandal’s Joe Morton. Up until this point, Dwayne has been weighing heavily whether to follow through on getting Whitley back.
A friend of mine used to reference this scene anytime we’d talk about flaky men in our lives: “He’s the type who loves you when it’s too late. He’ll show up at your wedding. Just like Dwayne did Whitley.” As if this happened in real life.
This scene still gives me chills.
Indulging nostalgia can sometimes be pointless, but I wanted to watch A Different World with fresher, post-formative eyes. The fact that many of my virgin TV experiences involved unapologetically black shows is something I appreciate more now, considering the number of kids who’ve grown up with bare-minimum minority programming in recent years.
So many mediocre, whitewashed series get celebrated that it’s easy to look past the so-called niche ones that are not exactly perfect, but great in their simplicity. With A Different World, we were able to see relatable characters who were successful, cool, real—and occasionally screwed up—versions of our future selves.
Images via screenshot, NBC
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