There's actually not much new to say about A Different World or its predecessor, The Cosby Show -- except that these two shows are now officially ... old. Not grainy, 16mm black-and-white film old, but at least Black History Month old. Usually, February is reserved for Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, LeVar Burton and Angela Davis. But while it's strange to think of something that happened in your own lifetime as "history," now that almost 20 years have passed since it first aired, A Different World is, in fact, black history.
I'm guessing that even committed bigots secretly liked The Cosby Show. It was just that funny. While The Cosby Show was as big a show as TV has ever seen, A Different World was more of a niche hit. It did boast the all-time smoothest segue from a show to its spin-off: The Cosby Show episode where Denise (Lisa Bonet) decides to attend Hillman University. Unlike older sister Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf) who went to Princeton, Denise opted for her parents' alma mater and everyone in TV land wanted to know how it would turn out. Apparently, not so well.
Had they been able to wait another year or two for the more gregarious Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) to reach college, he would have been the better candidate to attend Hillman. We knew Denise too well already. She wasn't a scholar like Sondra. It was too late to turn her into an over-the-top bourgié princess like Whitley (Jasmine Guy), and roommate Maggie (Marisa Tomei) was much better at playing the ditz role. Bonet was also on the outs with the Cosby clique for starring in the film Angel Heart, and her news that she and rocker Lenny Kravitz were expecting a child.
Most shows would have wilted at that point, but A Different World completely reloaded its cast after Season One. Whitley became the romantic grail for hip-hop nerd Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison), a character whom every woman I attended school with had a crush on by the time the show went off the air in 1992. Even though Season One isn't the show's best, it's worthwhile to look back at how the show evolved from a Huxtable family appendage to a free-standing, funny representation of black college life. A Different World played good cop to School Daze's bad cop. And, between the two, the previously Southern regional phenomenon of the HBCU (like Charlotte's own Johnson C. Smith University or Atlanta's Spelman College, where A Different World's exterior shots were filmed) went nationwide on primetime.
That Bill Cosby is now seen as the leading curmudgeon of the African-American elite unintentionally illustrates a point that Cosby surely understood at one time, but has somehow forgotten: You catch more flies with honey. What endeared The Cosby Show and A Different World to Black America -- and also made the former a crossover hit with white audiences -- was the fact that Cosby made people laugh at themselves in a dignified way, while always infusing positive messages. The shows were like a minister who uses just the right touch to get a congregation through a sermon without knowing that they're being preached to. In the Different World episode, "Wild Child," there's a clever paradigm twist as Denise tries to help out a financially struggling white student (Katie Rich). To convince the dean to offer a scholarship, dorm head Lettie (Mary Alice) wisely observes that "This girl has an original mind. If you don't let her in, you'll be doing Hillman and yourself a disservice." A mind is a terrible thing to waste, indeed.
The best part about revisiting A Different World's first season is finding the small quirks emblematic of college life at that time. Not only are there no laptops or mobile phones, Denise actually calls home on the pay phone in the hallway. Students at Hillman go through all of the popular looks of the late-1980s and early-1990s Spike Lee zeitgeist: the Teddy Riley "New Jack" gear, Africa medallions and asymmetrical haircuts for both men and women. There are signposts of black accomplishment throughout, like a poster of Yannick Noah in Whitley's dorm room.
My younger sister is the biggest A Different World fan that I know. I assumed that she became a fan of the show after it went into syndication. I was surprised when she told me that she watched the show in the 1980s as a little kid. When I asked why, she said it was because "That's how I imagined you in college." And that was the point. Bill Cosby wanted to see African-American college students portrayed on TV, so he put them there to honor the African-American educational tradition, to make us laugh and for kids to see themselves on TV in a way they hadn't seen themselves before.