Bill Cosby 1980s superhit sitcom The Cosby Show was an unstoppable juggernaut that crushed its competition. At the height of its fame, Cosby and company created A Different World, a spinoff vehicle for his TV daughter, Lisa Bonet. During The Cosby Show‘s run, Bonet played Denise Huxtable, the eccentric, free spirit who didn’t seem to fit in the overachieving Huxtable household where dad’s a doctor and mom’s an attorney. For A Different World, Denise is shipped off to Hillman, a fictional historically black college, where she’s the focus.
For many, the first season of A Different World is a bit of head-scratcher. This season was meant to be a star-making show for Bonet, but unfortunately, the actress couldn’t carry the whole show on her slight shoulders. Without the goofy charms of her TV dad, Bonet’s Denise became a wan, pale presence, floating through, playing straight man to the other, brighter characters. Populating Hillman was Maggie played by future Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei; Jaleesa played by Dawnn Lewis (who also co-wrote the show’s theme song); Kadeem Hardison portrayed the impish, but brilliant Dwayne Wayne, who pined after Denise; his best friend is Ron Johnson (Darryl M. Bell); watching over the kids is den mother, Stevie (Loretta Devine); and best of all, Southern belle with an attitude, Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy).
The A Different World that most remember is a socially conscious sitcom that focused on Whitley and Dwayne. Unfortunately, the first season took its cue from its parent show and tried to exist in a sealed environment, free from topical issues (while The Cosby Show was successful in its ability to remain fresh for most of its time despite eschewing controversial issues, A Different World isn’t as interesting). Instead the plot lines revolved around Denise trying to keep her grades up, fending off the advances of Dwayne, and trying to get along with her various roommates including Jaleesa and Whitley, both of whom push against her at times. While there’s nothing wrong with the show, it really doesn’t have much of an identity.
The biggest problem is Bonet. A beautiful and very likable actress, but not much of a comedienne, she starts to drift into the background and she disappears when in the presence of her more forceful castmates. Tomei is touching as the slightly ditzy Maggie, infusing her character with warmth and humor, and making a lot of not very little. Lewis is also very good, with a sharp wit and a great way with a one-liner – it’s no wonder she lasted after the show’s first season. Hardison is also excellent, and proves to be a great comic talent, who refuses to debase himself by dipping into minstrel performance. All of the performers are great, but the real standout is Guy – she is the only actor on the show who creates a real character. Beautiful, vain, and self-centered, she’s an explosive comic force able to ring laughs even at the most meager lines with her affected, highly exaggerated Southern drawl – it’s little wonder that once Bonet left the show, the attention moved toward Guy.
The show would later tackle issues like racism, racial profiling, hate crimes, sexism, sexual harassment, AIDS, Apartheid, the Los Angeles Riots, gang violence. In the first season, none of that is included. Also once the show is taken over by actress/director/choreographer Debbie Allen, Hillman becomes much more obvious a black college – not only are the students all black, but African-American history and black culture are folded expertly into the show’s plots and dialogue. Again, with the first season, none of that is done – instead, the world of A Different World in its first season is a bland, somewhat diverse, but diluted world.
As an extra the first season has a later season episode with Tupac Shakur and future Mrs. Will Smith, Jada Pinkett. By that episode, the show started to show some wear. Still that episode was much more indicative of what kind of show A Different World could be: Pinkett’s character Lena James is dealing with the angst she feels when she entertains friends from her native Baltimore, all of whom eye Lena’s college life with suspicion. Questions of socio-economic classes, social mobility, and the value of education are just the kinds of important topics that the writers of A Different World would examine. It’s a markedly different show than the first season.
Aside from Bonet, there are other members of The Cosby Show that make their way to the fictional world of Hillman. Cosby makes a few appearances, mostly via telephone. Bonet’s TV mom, Phylicia Rashad, stops by as Claire Huxtable, as does her TV siblings Malcolm Jamal Warner as brother Theo and Keshia Knight Pulliam as sister Rudy (in an episode that allows Guy to show off).
The first season of A Different World isn’t bad – but there is much reason to watch it, with the possible exception of Guy – who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. But it’s an enjoyable diversion. And if the other seasons ever get released, it’s a good entry for completists.