“A Different World”: A Sitcom Come Too Early, Too Late And Just In Time

From September 24, 1987 to July 9, 1993, NBC television treated viewers to life in Tertiary education unlike any other in television history. Audiences were introduced to experiences at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) with a sitcom at fictional Hillman College, chronicling the academic career of The Cosby Show daughter, Denise Huxtable.

Clockwise from top left, characters Dwayne Wayne, Jaleesa Vinson, Maggie Lauten, Denise Huxtable

Originally intending to feature a white student at an “all-black” institution (hence the show’s title), the producers ultimately decided to focus on an African American student, with a white friend.

The first and second season casts introduced us to characters such as:

  • Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) – Cosby family college student, struggling to find direction in her academic and personal life. She eventually drops out after her sophomore year (appearing in only the first season).
  • Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) – Engineering student and self-proclaimed math genius who clumsily and unsuccessfully pursues Denise throughout Season 1. He later turns his affections towards unlikely classmate, Whitley.
  • Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) – Privileged and snobbish southern belle (originally the show’s so-called antagonist to Denise) who soon becomes Dwayne’s love interest and the central character after Denise’s departure.
  • Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis) – 26-year-old college student seeking to reclaim her life and complete her education after a failed marriage.
  • Maggie Lauten (Marisa Tomei) – Talkative “Military Brat” sophomore transfer student and roommate to Denise and Whitley. Juggling her studies with her long-distance relationship. Appeared in only Season 1 as the show’s only white character other than “Matthew”, Freddie’s cousin.
  • Ron Johnson (Darryl M. Bell) – Musician, wiseguy and Dwayne’s girl-chasing, loyal sidekick, who is also in love with Whitley (after dating Millie for Season 1, before her unexplained departure). He ventually pursues Kim, then Freddie.
  • Walter Oakes (Sinbad) – Graduate student, football/baseball/basketball/track coach, dorm director and advisor to the students. His relationship with them is just as much as a father, older brother and a friend. He was also engaged to Jalessa for a short period.
  • Kimberly Reese (Charnele Brown) – Medical student, grounded in reality and morality, regarded by many fans to be the calming force and “soul” of the show.
  • Winifred “Freddie” Brooks (Cree Summer) – Flower child and free spirit who eventually becomes more serious and grounded about life (specifically black and women’s rights) and eventually pursues law.

Other memorable characters include Mr. Gaines (owner of the school diner known as “The Pit”), Colonel Bradford Taylor, Dorm Assistants Lettie Bostic and Stevie Rallen along with many others.

Throughout the duration of the series, “A Different World” featured notable and soon-to-be famous talents in both starring and recurring roles. These included (deep breath): Glynn Turman, Jada Pinkett, Mary Alice, Loretta Devine, Gary Dourdan, Kim Wayans, Jenifer Lewis, Diahann Carroll (Whitley’s mom), Patti LaBelle (Dwayne’s mom), Joe Morton, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash, Ron O’Neal, Robert Guillaume, etc.

The Guest Stars were endless, including but not limited to (bigger breath): Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Art Evans, Richard Roundtree, Halle Berry, Dean Cain, Whoopi Goldberg, David Alan Grier, Alfonso Ribeiro, Lena Horne, Jesse Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Obba Babatunde, Blair Underwood, Allen Payne, Monica Calhoun, Orlando Jones (also one of the show’s writers), Thomas Mikal Ford, Billy Dee Williams and many more. In addition, musical groups/artists En Vogue, Heavy Dee, Gladys Knight, Kriss Kross and The Boys.

“A Different World” (ADW) came along during a time when the social, political and economic climates were begging for attention and more important, change. Racism, political corruption, poverty, sexism, you name it – all splattered around the face of our nation in both subtle and overt fashion. Unfortunately, these would not be addressed unless you picked up your local newspaper or turned on the nightly news. The only other places you could find reference to current events and issues were on the big screen or in daytime drama. But one place you would NEVER go was your typical situation comedy. Uncharted territory, forbidden territory, taboo…

When “The Cosby Show” created this spin-off, designed to extend the “family fun” formula to the college scene, we originally got more of the same: Cosby-esque comedy with a happy lesson to be learned at the end of each episode. Success! Right? Wrong!

It didn’t take long for show fans (namely HBCU students) to speak out in frustration about how a show “about us” was anything BUT. Not only did the lifestyles of the characters fail to reflect every day life on the “black” college scene, but their general appearance and personalities painted a misleading portrait, compared to what you would find at the Florida A&Ms (one time for my Mighty Rattlers), Gramblings, Southerns and Morehouses of the country.

As a result, show creator Bill Cosby released producer Anne Beatts and brought in actress/producer/director/choreographer Debbie Allen, granting her total autonomy over the overall theme. Allen chose to give the show a more realistic feel, incorporating changes such as the removal of the wigs & weaves, stressing the need for a more natural look among the women of the show. Changes along this line warmed up the audiences and contributed to the show’s ascension to success, particularly after covering more current and relevant topics. The biggest shock was the exit of ADW’s star, Denise Huxtable (whose real-life pregnancy forced writers to remove the character so as not to “taint” the Cosby image with a teenage college student with child). In addition, we saw the departure (later revealed to be another removal) of the show’s only white and supporting character, Maggie.

ADW Trivia: Upon notification of Tomei’s dismissal, co-star Kadeem Hardison offered his comfort by telling her that with her talents, she’d win an Academy Award in no time. His words proved true in 1993 when she was awarded Best Supporting Actress for her role in “My Cousin Vinny”.

Even the show’s theme song underwent change (although the lyrics remained the same): from Phoebe Snow’s performance in Season 1 to a more soulful version through that of Aretha Franklin (Seasons 2-5) and finally a hipper groove provided by Boyz II Men. It was written by Dawnn Lewis, Bill Cosby and Stu Gardner.

ADW Trivia: Aretha Franklin was previously married to cast member Glynn Turman, who played Col. Taylor.

Utilizing hard-hitting, yet stick-and-move humor, the writers managed to incorporate darker and more applicable issues which gave audiences pause and thoughts on which to reflect, skillfully making the funny moments even funnier. In addition, with the strength in performance of its castmembers, ADW created characters who would become a staple in college and pop/hip-hop culture to this very day.

As the seasons progressed, producers and scriptwriters daringly touched on topics you never saw or heard of in situation comedies: alcoholism, date rape, gun violence, interracial dating (and how it’s perceived by non-supporters), adoption, homelessness, workplace sexual harassment, poverty, the Gulf war, racial profiling, AIDS, domestic violence, gang warfare, drug trafficking and so forth and so on…

ADW Trivia: Charnele Brown “Kimberly Reese”, who was revered as the show’s wise, dark-skinned sister, began receiving hate mail when her character temporarily dated ADW’s short-lived white character, Matthew.

Three notable moments of the shows many memorable and powerful episodes:

Season 2, Episode 20 – “No Means No” – A naive Freddie accepts a date with school baseball star Garth Parks (played by “The Last Dragon” star Taimak), despite the trepidation and warning from former crush Dwayne Wayne. Dwayne suspects that Garth may have intentions of unwanted sexual advances, based on his “every girl wants it” attitude and his then-unknown date rape activity involving other students.

Thankfully, Dwayne Wayne saved the day, Garth was expelled and arrested.

Season 5, Episode 14 – “Cat’s In The Cradle” – Dwayne and Ron attend a college football game at a predominantly white campus where they encounter racism and a hate crime when one of three opposing students (Dean Cain) attempts to spray-paint “Nigger” on Ron’s car in anger after losing a bet to them. Both parties are arrested for the ensuing fight and given an opportunity to tell what transpired from their own biased, yet hilarious, “point of view”.

Check out this powerful scene.

Season 6, Episode 21 – “Homie, Don’t You Know Me” – Inner-city student Lena James receives a visit from her hometown friends (including her former boyfriend played by Tupac). Her “homies” disapprove of her new “bougie” dorm room friends and lifestyle, accusing her of abandoning her roots.

And who could forget the “on again – off again” steamy romance between Dwayne & Whitley…

…and of course, the iconic wedding scene.

The unlikely pairing of two polar opposites surprisingly resulted in a chemistry so incredible that it transcended television and became a benchmark for romantic relationships among young, black (and most all) couples.

Unfortunately, things became rocky for the show when it went against the warnings of executive management. Debbie Allen sought to film a two-part episode, highlighting the public response to the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the subsequent Los Angeles riots, which at the time, were still very sensitive subjects (It’s highly-believed that this episode resulted in the eventual undoing of the series, which was canceled at season’s end). Although they managed to write a two-part finale that offered closure, the cast and writers felt strongly that the show had enough momentum to successfully carry itself at least two more seasons.

I had the good fortune of watching this show while living in Tallahassee and attending Florida A&M University. It was a great pleasure to see where much of my personal experiences were accurately represented in the show, along with those of my friends. By the time the show ended, I was married and had relocated to another city, leaving my college friends just as the characters parted ways in the final episode and scene. That’s probably why the show’s finale was so emotionally jarring for me. Watching best friends Ron & Dwayne hug and say a tearful farewell as Dwayne and Whitley leave for Japan in the closing moments was deep for me. Some 25+ years later, I got to enjoy watching the entire series again. This time, with my youngest son, who felt heartbroken after the final episode because he developed a bit of a kinship with the ADW gang and felt like he was losing old friends. After the show’s end, I quickly replayed the debut episode just to see his jaw drop at how young they appeared, compared to the sixth season. Yes, we both enjoyed an incredible transformation, following the adventures of the Hillman College bunch.

Which brings me to my closing thoughts. A Different World hit on societal issues that had been ignored for so long, often considered to be the “we don’t talk about that” topics. It sparked and drove interest in such a direction that student enrollment at HBCUs skyrocketed, with students pursuing medicine, law, engineering, etc inspired by the efforts and successes of Kimberly, Freddie and Dwayne (respectively). It gave students a reason to be proud to attend predominately black learning institutions during a time when society had claimed that HBCUs had “outlived their usefulness”. It brought attention to the concerns of the youth of America, thrust into a different world in the college atmosphere (from the black perspective), while reminding us that real-world issues affect people of all races, beliefs, and yes, age.

I know my parents loved 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 goal
If you dish it
We can take it
Just remember you’ve been told

It’s a different world
From where you come from
It’s a different world
From where you come from…”

(Theme Song from “A Different World”)

Now available at Amazon Prime.

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3 comments

  1. I’m surprised (yet not shocked) that Charnele Brown received hate mail while/after her character dated Matthew. I probably shouldn’t be shocked seeing as how some still feel a type of (ugly) way about black women dating white men. But seemingly never when it’s the reverse.

    One episode that stands out to me is the episode when Tisha Campbell’s character reveals she has AIDS during class while reading her “Eulogy”. It was a heavy episode from the reaction of her classmates to the jarring scene after where she’s shunned in The Pit by Gina (and Terrence idiotically wears a mask while insisting it wasn’t because of her), once Mr. Gaines sets them straight, they apologize to HIM but not Tisha’s character.

    Anyways…I was just a toddler when the show started and a young child in it’s heyday and series finale but I watched along with my parents and enjoyed the seasons as a young adult. Great synopsis!

    Liked by 1 person

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