Black on HULU – “A Different World”

@MediaManWatch’s look back at the game-changing sitcom zv7qrnb



 

by Curtis Caesar John

Welcome back to the new recurring column here on Bold As Love as we track the most interesting developments in the streaming video world from one of our favorite of these services: Hulu and Hulu Plus.

Now while they all have their advantages, Hulu Plus is special in that for some time now has provided viewers with many special television shows and movies that you just are unable to find anywhere else. I’ve had it for sometime and enjoyed revisiting my youth with greatly goofball programs like 21 Jump Street to hilarious contemporary British shows like Whites and Spy, and classic sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Also enjoyable are various old and foreign movies, especially those from the world-famous Criterion Collection with titles like Godard’s Breathless, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VII, and so much more.

But if you have not figured it out, we’ll be focusing here on film and television from the African diaspora. Many of the titles here are either relatively hard to find or just flat out haven’t been seen in the past few years.

A grand unveiling a few months ago was Hulu Plus’ release of The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World. Game-changing in its content and approach to telling the stories of young Black women and men here in America, A Different World ran directly after The Cosby Show on NBC for six seasons from 1987-1993 and featured the lives of students at Hillman College, a historical Black college in Virginia, as they struggled to get through their new lives and grow into adults.

different_world_season1ADW originally centered on actress Lisa Bonet as Cosby-kid Denise Huxtable as she awkwardly adjusted from her family life as a smart and quirky Brooklyn girl into a bigger world into which she just wasn’t as unique. Also starring Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson and (not yet) Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei as Maggie, this first season was as weak as Denise’s adjustment with corny and dry stories that tried to be as ‘everyday’ and ‘inclusionary’ as Cosby but that did not succeed in the setting of an HBCU. The show really only thrived because of its place in the schedule and possibly Bonet’s warmth.

Bonet left after her controversial turn in Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart and her subsequent estrangement from Bill Cosby combined with a pregnancy for her rocker husband Lenny Kravitz, leaving room for it to be totally retooled. Now revamped by producer/director Debbie Allen, the cast was more of an ensemble dealing with issues relevant to them not only in the college world, but the overall changing Black world — so out was Tomei’s character. There was also a refocus to the budding romance of characters Whitley Gilbert, a pampered southern bell, and goofy, horny engineering whiz Dwayne Wayne – but not in the ‘will they?/won’t they?’ Moonlighting- fashion that pervaded TV at the time and well beyond (see how that contemporarily ruined a great show like New Girl). The eventual Whitley-Duane romance would have its ups and downs, but proved tantalizing enough to make actors Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison household names and romantic icons.

Some argued that at times ADW became too laden in morality issues, showing the Black perspective on apartheid, HIV/AIDS, date rape, sexual discrimination, and more were seen here but nowhere else. And Black female representation, working somewhat off that focus of season one, inspired young Black women to attend college at higher levels before, a statistic that still stands. New characters like Charnele Brown’s medical student Kim Reese, Cree Summer as the wide-eyed hippy Winifred ‘Freddie’ Brooks,and Glynn Thurman’s no-nonsense math professor Col. Bradford Taylor, helped round out the also newly expanded roles of Lewis’ plucky older and ambitious female student Jaleesa, Sinbad’s real-world grounded grad student/gym teacher/resident assistant character Walter Oakes, Mary Alice’s wise and worldly house mother Lettie Bostic, and Darryl M. Bell’s now less-toady and more so roguishly charming Ron Johnson. Soon thereafter, Lou Meyer’s Mister Gaines (Vernon) would also feed the students bellies and souls with saintly wisdom.   While the seasoned actors enhanced their brilliance, the younger stars transformed themselves from basic sitcom and weak theater actors to primetime stars.

Guest and recurring stars also helped make the show successful, including Roscoe Lee Brown as literature professor lisa_bonet+adwDr. Foster (continuing his role from The Cosby Show), Joe Morton as Byron Douglas (season 5), Richard Roundtree as Kim’s dad Clinton Reese, Gary Dourdan as grad student Shaza Zulu.  But the two most dynamic were Diahann Carroll as Whitley’s mother Marion and Patti LaBelle as Dwayne’s mom Adele. Separately, they made every episode they appeared in gold, but together, notably when Dwayne and Whitley’s romance blossomed and then faltered, their on-screen chemistry arguably created the best rivalry ever in Black television next to Sanford and Son‘s Fred Sanford and Aunt Esther.

Later seasons would see the addition of cast members and recurring characters like homegirl Lena James, which marked Jada Pinkett’s debut to the world-at-large, and Cory Tyler as Col. Taylor’s son Terrence. The final season would attempt to jumpstart the youthful vitality of the show with three new freshman characters (Patrick Y. Malone, Karen Malina White, and Bumper Robinson) and Ajai Sanders’ recurring character Gina bumped up to series regular, but the dynamic just wasn’t the same though it could have been if given a chance. In hindsight, the last season was still pretty strong story wise.

While ADW ended the year after its lead in went off the air, the ‘difference’ it made to Black television would never be repeated.

To get a sense of the show without binging, here are a few must-see episodes, mostly from early in the show’s run. Some are just for context while others are listed for greatness and game-changing status. A huge thank you to EpGuides.com who compiled a bulk of the episode breakdowns in one solid place.

Season 1, episode 5 : “War of the Words”

(Original air date: October 29, 1987)

Why should I watch it? Nostalgia alone

Kim Wayans, famous just three years later for her comedic skills on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, was a recurring character named Allison in Season 1. In this episode, her more famous brothers Keenan, creator of In Living Color and Damon (though also much less famous at the time) also appear. Also important, Dawnn Lewis (Jaleesa) would appear the next year in the film that made Keenan famous, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Their future Color co-star David Alan Grier would appear in Episode 9.

Guest stars: Keenan Ivory Wayans as Professor Lawrence , Damon Wayans as Marvin Haven , Dean Howell as Mike

Maggie prepares to debate Whitley on the topic of whether women can balance a career and family life. She is distracted by a surprise visit from her boyfriend, Mike, who stuns her by revealing that he has left school to take a job with the National Pork Council. He asks Maggie to transfer to a school in Washington, D.C. to be near him, and proposes marriage. Maggie is so overwhelmed by her relationship crisis that Denise must take her place in the middle of the debate. She wins easily by detailing the way in which her parents have employed compromise to make their situation work. Maggie and Mike take her words to heart and decide to slow down their relationship. Meanwhile, Dwayne tries to get a permanent spot on campus radio after successfully filling in for an ailing disc jockey.

Season 1, episode 13: “The Prime of Miss Lettie Bostic”

(Original air date: January 21, 1988)

Why should I watch it? Signs of the future finally occur.

Mary Alice joins the ADW cast as resident director Lettie Bostic. Ron O’Neal, appears as the Dean who hires her. He would later recur as Whitley’s father Mercer and the foil of her mother Marion (Diahann Carroll). Sidenote: A few episodes prior Mercer made his first appearance by actor Conroy Gedeon as the newly divorced character brings his girlfriend to visit Whitley before they all go to the Swiss Alps on Christmas vacation. In the two degrees of separation of the Black World, the girlfriend Monica is played by actress Troy Beyer who played Diahann Carroll’s daughter in Dynasty just a few years early. Incestuous!

Guest stars: Ron O’Neal as Quentin, Kevin Vavasseur as Gregory

Jaleesa fills in as resident director after Stevie (a young Loretta Devine) leaves the university to get married). The students attend a lecture by Lettie Bostic, a renowned world traveler who years ago dropped out of Hillman and moved to Paris, where she kept company with Picasso and other artistic icons and even worked as a spy during World War II. She confesses that she still regrets quitting school, so the dean offers to give her credit for “life experience” if she takes over as Gilbert Hall’s resident director. During a dorm meeting Lettie immediately rubs the girls the wrong way with her blunt comments. Jaleesa, bitter about losing her leadership position, organizes a revolt in the hopes of driving Lettie away. Lettie covers for the girls when they break a television set, and both sides agree to be less abrasive.

Season 2, episode 1: “Dr. War is Hell”

(Original air date: October 6, 1988)

Why should I watch it? This is when Debbie Allen takes over and the progressive changes occur. Charnele Brown, Cree Summer and Glynn Turman join the cast, and Darryl M. Bell and Sinbad become official cast members. Sidenote: From 1978 to 1984, Turman was married to Aretha Franklin, who began singing the show’s theme song this season, adding yet another two degrees of Black World separation.

The new school year begins sans Denise Huxtable, and to make matters even worse for Dwayne he faces the prospect of taking a calculus from Colonel Taylor, a no-nonsense professor nicknamed “Dr. War.” He fears that Col. Taylor could expose his academic success as a fluke and destroy his dreams of becoming an engineer, so he asks Walter to help him get into another section. Walter believes that Dwayne could thrive under Col. Taylor’s tutelage, and asks the professor to talk to him. Col. Taylor manages to change Dwayne’s mind and convince him to enroll in his class. Whitley, used to bunking alone, meets new roommate Kim Reese, a headstrong freshman who plans to become a doctor. Whitley hopes to intimidate Kim and drive her to another room, but finds it impossible to break her. Jaleesa’s wide-eyed freshman roommate, Freddie Brooks, develops a massive crush on Dwayne.

Season 2, episode 4: “Dream Lover”

(Original air date: November 3, 1988)

Why should I watch it? Whitley and Dwayne get busy! No, not really. But this is where their budding romance first becomes apparent to them and us.

Guest star: LaRita Shelby as Lelie Wilkins, a recurring character that season

Stress on campus is high and so the students all gather a party to celebrate midterms. Dwayne, seeing Whitley in a skin-tight white dress, tries to dance with her and she agrees, noting how even he’s a step above the rest of the guys there. Unfortunately, the dance ends quickly when he grabs her butt.

Later that night, Whitley has an (off-screen) intense erotic dream about Dwayne. Throughout the day she continues to daydream about Dwayne in the computer lab. When she almost loses her work Dwayne is there to help her retrieve a file – and she inadvertently kisses him. There’s much more, but watch it and be impressed. 

Season 2, episode 11: “It Happened One Night”

(Original air date: January 12, 1989)

Why should I watch it? Sh!t gets real.

As opposed to the milquetoast topics from the prior season not only is a potential pregnancy occurring but also the topic of abortion is brought up and seriously discussed. Abortion was spoken about on television dramas and some sitcoms at this time, but not Black ones and not so frankly either.

Guest star: Brian Wesley Thomas as Robert

Kim refuses to take calls from Robert, and simply tells her friends that they had a fight. She confesses to Whitley that she may be pregnant. Whitley offers her complete support, and even sacrifices her car by loaning it to Freddie to prevent her from pestering Kim. Robert explains his predicament to Walter explaining how he made the situation worse by suggesting that Kim get an abortion (In Sinbad’s perfect comedic timing he tells Robert how he should have had the ‘Walter Oakes Date Pack’). Walter tells Robert to give Kim some space, but he sneaks into the girls’ dorm with Dwayne and apologizes for his initial reaction; he asks Kim to marry him. They decide to wait until after her doctor’s appointment before considering such a big step. Kim is relieved to learn that she is not pregnant, and endures a stern lecture from Lettie, whom they tried to hide it from.

Season 2, episode 20: “No Means No”

(Original air date: March 30, 1989)

Why should I watch it? Things get really real.

Similar to the previously noted episode, the serious topic of date rape is addressed, and done frankly but with still a tinge of humor so you can digest it. The acting is superb save that of The Last Dragon star Taimak, who at least does creepy well.

Guest stars: Taimak as Garth Parks, Gretchen Palmer as Tammy, Lisa Canning as Girl fan of Garth

Recurring character: Mr. Gaines

Freddie falls for Garth Parks, a handsome and intelligent baseball star. Teammate Dwayne backs out of a date to the dance with Freddie so that she can go with Garth. However, Dwayne is disturbed when Garth shares details of a past incident with Tammy. Dwayne describes the story to Walter, who confirms that it should be considered date rape. When Dwayne tries to dissuade Freddie from dating Garth, she accuses him of jealousy. Garth takes Freddie to an observation point and tries to force himself on her, but Dwayne comes to the rescue. Freddie and Tammy make statements to the police and help put Garth behind bars.

Truly, season two is as near perfect of a season as TV sitcoms can get and the remaining seasons (except arguably the final season number six) share similar levels of quality – or at least daring.

Other season two episodes of note:

Season 2, episode 3: “Some Enchanted Late Afternoon” – (Original air date: October 27, 1988)

Jaleesa and Walter’s romance begin as they go on their first date. Despite having a great time and a sexy slow dance, she decides to stay with her long-distance boyfriend. That doesn’t last much longer.   Listen out for “Me and señora Jones.” 20 years later and I still cannot get that song out of my head.

Season 2, episode 6: “Three Girls Three” – (Original air date: November 10, 1988)

The contentious relationship between Whitley and Jaleesa becomes less so when they unite forces and their voices to combat an aspiring opera singer who turned on them that they recruited to win a contest to sing backup at a Gladys Knight concert. This hilarious episode features actress/singer Sharon Brown in the role of opera singer Angela Atkins, an actress with great potential who never seemed to catch that bi break. She’s the daughter of Johnny Brown who played Mr. Bookman in Good Times. Gladys Knight naturally appears as well, acting-wise in a short segment and in an imaginary sequence at the end. 

Season 3, episode 3: “The Hat Makes the Man”

(Original air date: October 19, 1989)

Why should I watch it? There are numerous ‘clash of the sexes’ episodes, but this is one of the best.

Guest stars: Ruben Grundy as Ernest (recurring character), Hugh W. Allen as Quincy Lee Tolleson, Viva Vinson as Janetta, Thom Keane as Leone, and Akosua Busia credited as Girl in Dorm

At the beginning of Season 3, Walter runs the now co-ed Gilbert Hall dorm with Jaleesa as his resident assistant. Things go relatively smooth until the week of the anniversary of their first date, when they begin clash over a supposed double-standard over dorm discipline between male and female students. Unknowingly to Jalessa, Walter allows shy Southern gentleman student Quincy let his girlfriend Janetta stay overnight before she ships out with the Navy. When Jaleesa disagrees and recommends that Quincy be punished, Walter pulls rank on her. Still incensed, Jaleesa brings it up during their romantic anniversary dinner and winds up storming out of the restaurant. With Jaleesa siding with them, the girls accuse Walter of a double standard and refuse to vacate Quincy’s room until Walter either punishes him or agrees to let them have guys stay over. Quincy appears before the dorm council and measures to prevent further instances of sexism are established.

Though her presence is not heavy here, actress Akosua Busia, known best for her role of Nettie, the sister to Whoopi Goldberg’s character Celie in The Color Purple (1985) and also co-starred in the film adaptation of Native Son (1986), appears in this episode as a non-named (but credited) girl in the dorm. Victor Love, who played Bigger Thomas in Native Son, would appear in the Season 5 episode 15 as Jamal/Lionel Walker.

 

Season 3, episode 15: “A World Alike”

(Original air date: February 15, 1990)

Why should I watch it? A rare, non-watered down, TV-based glimpse into the Black mind on South Africa and apartheid from the minds of young Black women and men. Also, Julian Days is introduced.
guest stars: Dominic Hoffman as Julian Days; Ron Mokwena as Mbubunni, a South African student and recurring character; Abner Mariri as Kobie, another South African student

Hillman’s anti-apartheid campaign is in full swing and within the hubbub Whitley meets Julian, an intelligent and attractive exchange student from Georgetown heading up the initiative. Meanwhile, Kim gets a full scholarship that will solve her tuition issues but unfortunately, Freddie discovers that the company funding the scholarship is a subsidiary of a corporation with investments in South Africa. When Julian proposes a boycott he angers Whitley by recommending that Hillman cut all financial ties with the corporation, as this would cost Kim her scholarship. South Africa student Kobie argues against the termination of scholarships, because he feels that the success of African American students serves as a beacon of hope to black South Africans mired in poverty and oppression. But Kim cannot live with herself taking that blood money and decides to turn down the scholarship. Whitley accepts a date with Julian that would last throughout the rest of the season.

Season 3, episodes 24 and 24: “Getaway”

(Original air date: April 19& 26, 1990)

Why should I watch it? This is the first ever two-part episode of ADW and among the funniest episodes ever, despite Dwayne and Ron appearing in drag (there’s a good reason!).

Guest stars: Ruben Grundy as Ernest,Susan Fales, the producer of the ADW, as Mandy, Rickster and Steven Daniells-Silva as thugs Eric and Paul

Dwayne, Ron, Kim, Freddie and Ernest head to Devil’s Island, South Carolina for spring break. At the last minute Whitley’s plans with Julian changes and she reluctantly joins them at the last minute. Romance is in the air as Ron tries to romance Kim, but she repeatedly turns him down. He then sets his eyes on Mandy, the niece of the man who rented the cabin to the crew. Ernest also has big plans beyond their previous flirting for Freddie, but passes out drunk.

Meanwhile, dangerous drug dealers Eric and Paul search the student’s rental van for a missing duffel bag. Shortly thereafter, Dwayne and Ron discover that a stray bag in the house has the dealer’s money and drugs. They try to catch the ferry to bring it to the police but are too late. Freddie and Kim meet the drug dealers on the beach and flirt with them, unaware that they are criminals.

Whitley is soon surprised by Julian but wants nothing to do with him as she intended their original weekend to be and intimate “first time together.” Dwayne and Ron dress like women to get past the drug dealers and onto the ferry, but when hey arrive at the police station they accidentally bring Julian’s bag instead. Paul and Eric search the house, failing to recognize Dwayne and Ron (who are still disguised as “Diana” and “Rhonda”) and promise to return that night. The crew are now all aware of the threat and fear the police will not make it in time because a storm has cancelled all ferry service. Kim, Freddie, Ron and Mandy head out in search of help. Bu the killers return and Whitley, Dwayne and Julian, in a surprisingly funny attack, have to fend them off. The trio struggles with the men until Walter and the police show up to save them. Ernest, finally over his hangover, comes into the living room and asks if he has missed anything.

A-Different-World-tv-02

Other episode of note:

Season 3, episode 08: “Under One Roof” – (Original air date: January 4, 1990)

This marks the third appearance of wholly underrated and headstrong film, stage, and TV star Rosalind Cash as Dean Hughes. In this episode her background is fleshed out more as Whitley and Freddie spend the weekend at her house to co-host the annual freshman tea. Cash’s ability to be dramatic and funny with less than a glance is on display here and it is obvious these young women, already funny and talented in their own right, enhance their performances around her. Rosalind Cash would pass away a few years later from cancer.

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Curtis Caesar John is the Film Editor for Bold As Love Magazine. He also covers film and culture for Limité Magazine as well as for Shadow And Act, for which he created the regular feature ‘This Week in Black Television.’ He is born, raised and resides in Brooklyn, NY, of course. Follow him on Twitter at @MediaManWatch.
  • JERRY RICE

    BY FAR BEST BLACK SHOW OF ALL TIME. IT NEVER MAKES ANYONE’S #1 BUT IT ALWAYS IS IN THE TOP 3 TO 5.