Nov 14, 2016

A Different World: Angst and Beefcake at a Black College

Different World (1987-1993) was a spin-off of The Cosby Show (1984-1992), the blockbuster warmedy about a African-American family in a world where poverty and racism were topics of history lessons, thanks to Fearless Leader Ronald Reagan.  It sent daughter Denice (Lisa Bonet) off to her parents' old alma mater, the elite, historically-black Hillman College in Virginia, where she is surrounded by quirky classmates:

Non-nonsense older student Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis)

Snobbish Whitley (Jasmine Guy, not shown)

Annoyingly horny Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison)

The flighty Maggie (Marisa Tomei), because producers worried that white viewers wouldn't watch an all-black show (there were also lots of white students in crowd scenes).

The plotlines were silly and lighthearted, perhaps again to reassure viewers that this was pure escapism, with no serious social issues:

Denise has to wear a pig nose as punishment for being messy
Dwayne becomes a dj at the campus radio station
Denise mistakenly thinks that her geology professor is interested in her
Dwayne becomes a contestant in the Miss Hillman pageant.

After the first season, Lisa Bonet announced that she was pregnant, and was written out (her character returned to The Cosby Show to hide behind furniture).  Assured of an audience, the producers eliminated Maggie and the white background characters to make Hillman all-black.

And the tone changed dramatically.  No longer lighthearted, this was a somber drama with a few one-liners.  Life was hard, a constant struggle.  You had to cling together, and keep on keeping on:
Basketball star Garth Parks (Taimak) tries to rape his girlfriend.
A rapper (Edafe Blackmon) is abusing his girlfirend.
Shazza Zulu (Gary Dourdan) writes a book criticizing black men for not controlling their women.
A exhibition of "Mammy" images raises students' ire.
A new student has AIDS

And there was racism, a constant in the lives of faculty and students alike, a pernicious force that threatens to drain their spirits:
Racist slurs are painted on Ron's car.
Whitley is followed around in a store to make sure she doesn't steal anything.
Dwayne loses out on a job to a less-qualified white candidate.

New characters were added, including several adults:
Coach Walter Oakes (Sinbad)
Math professor Colonel Taylor (Glenn Turman)
World-weary Vernon Gaines (Lou Myers)

And students:
Ron (Darryl M. Bell, left)
Freddie  (Cree Summer)
Kim (Charnele Brown)

Existing characters changed:
Whitley became the focus, a privileged, sheltered rich girl being exposed to the struggle of everyday life for the first time.

Dwayne, now her boyfriend, was no longer a happy-go-lucky jokester, but somber and serious, buffeted about by adversity.

Eventually they marry, and honeymoon in Los Angeles, just in time for the Rodney King riots and a discussion of police targeting of African-American men.

They can't get a break.

As with most tv shows in the 1980s, there were no gay characters, or any reference to gay people at all, but a gay-subtext romance could be found between Dwayne and Ron.

But there were lots of hot actors on the show, and occasional t-shirt or gym-shorts scenes to pique the imagination.

The top photo, by the way, is what pops up on Google Images when you search for "Kadeem Hardison shirtless."  I'm pretty sure it's not him.

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