A DIFFERENT WORLD

U.S. Situation Comedy

A Different World, a spinoff of the top-rated The Cosby Show, enjoyed a successful run on NBC from 1987 to 1993. The half-hour, ensemble situation comedy was the first to immerse America in student life at an historically black college. Over the course of its run, the show was also credited with tackling social and political issues rarely explored in television fiction, and opening doors to the television industry for unprecedented numbers of young black actors, writers, producers and directors.

Set at Hillman College, a fictitious, historically black college in the South, the series began by focusing on the college experiences of sophomore Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet)--one of the four daughters featured on The Cosby Show. Denise's attempts to adjust to life away from her family's upper-middle-class nest, and her relationship with her roommates, typically fueled the plot of each episode. One of those roommates, Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis), was a young divorcee who considered Denise to be somewhat of a spoiled snob. Another roommate, Maggie Lauten (Marisa Tomei), was one of the few white students on the mostly black campus; for her, as it was for much of the show's audience, Hillman was indeed "a different world." Other recurring characters were added throughout the course of the first season: Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) was a rich Southern belle; Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) was a fast-talking, but studious, New Yorker; Ron Johnson (Darryl Bell) was Dwayne's scheming sidekick; and Walter Oakes (Sinbad) was the dorm director and gym teacher. Bonet and her character, Denise, left the show after the first season due to her real-life pregnancy.

Despite dismal initial reviews, A Different World capitalized off of its Thursday at 8:30 P.M. timeslot on NBC--between The Cosby Show and the ever-popular sitcom, Cheers--and finished second in the ratings its first season. The show and its creative staff were revamped for the second season, leading to third and fourth-place finishes for the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, respectively. Among black viewers, however, the show consistently ranked first or second throughout most of its run.

As The Hollywood Reporter noted, the series was transformed "from a bland Cosby spinoff into a lively, socially responsible, ensemble situation comedy" only after Debbie Allen took over as producer-director following the first season. Allen, a prominent black dancer, choreographer and actress--and a graduate of historically black Howard University--drew from her college experiences in an effort to accurately reflect in the show the social and political life on black campuses. Moreover, Allen instituted a yearly spring trip to Atlanta where series writers visited two of the nation's leading black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman. During these visits, ideas for several of the episodes emerged from meetings with students and faculty. Symbolizing the show's transformation between the two seasons, perhaps, "the queen of soul," Aretha Franklin, was chosen to replace Phoebe Snow as vocalist for the title theme.

During Allen's tenure, casting changes also transformed the look and feel of the series. Several new characters were added, while certain characters from the first season were featured more prominently in order to add some spice. A cafeteria cook, Mr. Gaines (Lou Meyers), was added to give the series a flavor of southern culture. A hardworking, pre-medical student, Kim Reese (Charnele Brown ), was also introduced as a foil for Whitley; she worked for Mr. Gaines in the cafeteria and eventually found herself caught in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Ron, one of the original characters. Similarly, Dwayne became entangled in a love-hate relationship with another original character, Whitley. The eventual marriage of Dwayne and Whitley became a major event in the storyline. Other new characters included: Col. Taylor (Glynn Turman), the campus ROTC commander; Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer), an environmental activist with metaphysical leanings; Terrence Taylor (Cory Tyler), the son of Col. Taylor; and Lena James (Jada Pinkett), a feisty freshman from the Baltimore projects. Each new season, brought an incoming class of freshman and new featured characters. In short, following the departure of Bonet's character after the first season, the series became a true ensemble situation comedy.

A Different World is also notable for its attempts to explore a range of social and political issues rarely addressed on television--let alone in situation comedies. Featured characters regularly confronted such controversial topics as unplanned pregnancy, date rape, racial discrimination, AIDS, and the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings. Many observers also commended the series for extolling the virtues of higher education for African American youth at a time when many black communities were in crisis.

In the final analysis, A Different World might best be remembered for its cultural vibrancy, its commitment to showcasing black history, music, dance, fashion and attitude. This quality, no doubt, was due in large measure to the closeness of the series' creative staff to the material: the series featured a black woman as producer-director (Allen), another as headwriter (Susan Fales), and several other people of color (male and female) in key creative positions. Few series in the history of television can claim a comparable level of black representation in key decision-making positions.

-Darnell Hunt

 


A Different World

CAST

Denise Huxtable (1987-88)......................... Lisa Bonet
Whitley Gllbert...................................... Jasmine Guy
Jaleesa Vinson...................................... Dawnn Lewis
Dwayne Wayne............................... Kadeem Hardison
Ron Johnson .............................................Darryl Bell
Maggie Lauten (1987-88)........................ Marisa Tomei
Millie (1987-88).......................... Marie-Alise Recasner
Stevie Rallen (1987-88)......................... Loretta Devine
J.T. Rallen(1987-88).............................. Amir Williams
Gloria (1987-88).................................... Bee-be Smith
Allison (1987-88).................................... Kim Wayane
Walter Oakes (1987-91)......................... Sinbad
Leticia "Lettie" Bostic (1988-89).................. Mary Alice
Col. Bradford Taylor (1988-93)................ Glynn Turman
Terrence Johann Taylor (1990-92)................ Cory Tyler
Winifred "Freddie" Brooks (1988-93)....... Cree Summer
Kim Reese (1988-93).......................... Charnele Brown
Vernon Gaines (1988-93)............................ Lou Myers
Ernest (1988-90)................................. Reuben Grundy
Julian (1990-91)............................... Dominio Hoffman
Lena James (1991-93)............................. Jada Pinkett
Charmaine Brown (1992-93)........... Karen Malina White
Gina Devereaux (1991-92)....................... Ajai Sanders
Byron Douglas III (1992)............................ Joe Morton
Shazza Zulu (1992)............................... Gary Dourdon
Clint (1992-93)...................................... Michael Ralph

PRODUCERS
Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Anne Beatts, Thad Mumford, Debbie Allen, George Crosby, Lissa Levin

PROGRAMMING HISTORY
144 Episodes

NBC
September 1987-June 1992             Thursday 8:30-9:00 July 1991-August 1991                     Monday 8:30-9:00 July 1992-November 1992               Thursday 8:00-8:30 November 1992-January 1993          Thursday 8:30-9:00 May 1993-June 1993                      Thursday 8:00-8:30 July 1993                                           Friday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Beller, Miles. "A Different World." The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 21 September 1989.

Dates, Janette, and William Barlow, editors. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990.

"A Different World." Variety (Los Angeles), 7 October 1987.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle For "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Haithman, Diane. "Different Touch to Different World." Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1988.

Honeycutt, Kirk. "Breaking Through the Walls: Tonight A Different World Broadcasts its 100th Episode on NBC. In Five Years It Has Grown from a Bland Cosby Spinoff Into a Lively, Socially Responsible, Ensemble Situation Comedy." The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 17 October 1991.

Letofsky, Irv. "A Different World." The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 24 September 1992.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1992.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Vittes, Laurence. "A Different World." The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 20 September 1990.

 

See also Carsey, Marcy; Cosby Show