My favorite episode – ‘A Different World’ – “A World Alike”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

One of the biggest complaints of the classic sitcom The Cosby Show was that the writers doggedly refused to address political or social issues, instead relying on the considerable charms of star Bill Cosby and the mundane adventures of a loving family. What made The Cosby Show so legendary was that viewers were able to relate to different situations that the Huxtables found themselves in (Rudy’s first day at school, Theo likes a girl, Vanessa gets into a fight with her girlfriends).

What’s interesting about its spin off, A Different World is that though initially a popular if dull continuation of Denise Huxtable’s story, it became a very politically-charged and socially-relevant show once star Lisa Bonet left and Debbie Allen took over the show. After that, episodes dealt with racism, affirmative action, sexual harassment,  AIDS, the L.A. Riots, hate crimes, date rape, spousal abuse, drugs, the Persian Gulf War, sexism, slavery, unemployment, homelessness, and South Africa. And though these topics may not seem like natural fits for a sitcom, but A Different World often took on these controversies and folded them (for the most part) well into standard sitcom plots.

In “A World Alike” the fictional college of Hillman is confronted with Apartheid when it comes out that one of the school’s major corporate donors is based in South Africa. Students activists on campus are pushing for a boycott of companies that are financially supportive of Apartheid, and when it comes out that Orange Glow has not divested from South Africa, the call for boycott of the company gets louder. Unfortunately, it turns out that the company is a large comglomerate that funds the school’s library, science and computer labs, as well as scholarships, one of which was awarded to the show’s resident genius, Kimberly Reese (Charlene Brown). Now she’s facing the difficult question: should she reject the award to support her principles, or should she put aside her ideals so that she can afford to go to medical school.

It’s a difficult question, and to the show’s credit, there are few easy questions. Script writer Susan Fales pens a solid script that presents both sides: some argue that Kimberly’s obligation is to herself and her family first, and she should take the scholarship, while others argue that it would be politically naive or obtuse to take money from a company that is benefiting from the oppression and subjugation of black people in South Africa.

What’s great about A Different World is that the characters are so diverse and distinct. What makes this question so hard for Kim is that she’s brilliant and also very responsible. Her parents are working class and she knows that the scholarship is one of the few options she has.  With Kimberly, viewers are allowed to weigh the pros and cons of the debate and see how difficult the decision is through Kimberly’s eyes.

Her two best friends, however, are far more extreme in their points of view. On the one hand, we have Freddi Brooks (Cree Summer), a politically-active, though sometimes unrealistic, activist who doesn’t see the large swath of gray in Kim’s situation. She believes that Kim should just turn down the scholarship and doesn’t take into account just how rough her situation is. On the other hand, we have Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), the beautiful and rich Southern belle who views the world a rather myopic way and thinks Kim should take the money because she doesn’t know any South Africans personally, and can only look at situations in terms of how she’s affected personally.

Because the character of Kimberly is much more subtle and even-keeled in the writing, Brown’s performance tends to reflect that relaxed nature. As a result, there are very few absurd highs and lows.

Summer and Guy have trickier parts because their characters often slipped into cartoons. In this episode, the binary that comes up from the comparison between the socially aware Freddi and the spoiled Whitley, actually helps push the episode forward because both sides of the arguments get airtime.

Interestingly enough, Whitley’s self-involved point of view is later revealed to be not as uninformed as it appears. In the less interesting b-plot, Whitley is romanced by Julian Day (Dominic Hoffman), a wealthy idealistic student who shares a lot of Freddi’s opinions on South Africa. He’s leading the boycott against Orange Glow and this causes a momentary fission in his relationship with Whitley, when they discover just how differently they approach the controversy. Both argue passionately, with Julian maintaining that even though it may hurt, students should sacrifice their scholarships for the greater good; Whitley, however, rightly points out that the two of them are not on financial aid and should keep their privilege in check and not guilt students who are not in the same positions they are.

In their fight, Whitley wisely points out: “You see, I’m not on financial aid, either, but I don’t go around dictating the social responsibilities of those who are.”

Obviously, in the end, Julian is right – supporting a company that ignores its moral obligation to society at large is wrong. But Whitley makes a strong point in that allies should listen and hang back and let those who are directly affected by the problem to take lead in the activism.

As if predicting this question, the show’s final scene has two students, both from Africa debate the value of boycotting Orange Glow. In the town hall meeting, students are asked for a complete boycott, which of course presents problems when students point out that the library, the labs, and student jobs are in jeopardy.

The arguments go in circles until two students from South Africa weigh in. Finally we get the voices of the South African students (largely silent throughout the episode). One of the students, Kobie (Abner Mariri) argues against having students give up their scholarships by arguing that the South African students who are suffering under Apartheid may gain inspiration from the example led by Hillman graduates – seeing black people achieve will undo some of the damage done to the psyche of black South Africans.

The discussions don’t lead to any definite answers – a rarity among sitcoms, where world problems get solved in about twenty minutes. But there is something admirable about a mainstream network TV show attacking a controversial and difficult issue in 1990.

In Kim’s case, she decides to forgo the scholarship. It makes sense for the reality of the show that Kim opts out, but it’s too pat and cheerily addressed. Kim’s decision will have critical repercussions for herself and her family and the blithe way in which her heavy decision is made is a little disappointing, especially when it comes from an episode that revels in the ambiguity of the students’ responsibilities.

As the show closes, the camera pans over the students who join in a song, and focuses on a wall covered with black luminaries, including a large portrait of Thurgood Marshall. It’s at that moment that I realized, TV shows like A Different World just don’t exist anymore – we don’t have “issue sitcoms” that exist to entertain and challenge. That’s not to say that television isn’t good – there are lots of great comedies on TV, but the goal of using TV as a way to enlighten its viewers has been largely pushed aside, derided as being “preachy.”

What also saddened me about watching the end of this episode is the confirmation that network television has largely digressed when it comes to portraying well-rounded black characters. It’s been years since an all-black cast led a sitcom on any of the major networks, and though we like to claim that our culture is post racial – something that’s credited, in part by The Cosby Show, it’s not reflected in our popular media.

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Filed under Comedy, commentary, Sitcom, Television, Writing

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