Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's A Different World From Where You Come From

by Odienator
(for all Mumf posts, go here)

I know my parents love me
Stand behind me come what may.
I know now that I'm ready
Cuz I finally heard them say
"It's a Different World from where you come from..."
-Theme song, A Different World

Two weeks ago, Nick at Nite aired an unforgettable rerun episode of The Cosby Show. It was not the pilot, nor the anniversary one with Rudy screaming out “Bay-Baaaaay!” with Ray Charles and the Raelettes. It wasn’t even the one where Theo’s shirt became the basis for a later episode of Seinfeld. Nick at Nite ran an episode called “Hillman,” where Cliff, Clair and the Huxtable clan went to the fictional historically Black college to attend its commencement ceremony. It was unforgettable to me because when it first aired back in 1987, I thought it was the most boring half-hour I’d ever spent in front of a TV. Veteran actors Joe Seneca and Gloria Foster appeared as a retiring dean and his successor; both gave boring speeches. Phylicia Rashad and the Hillman choir sang a gorgeous religious song at the end, but it was too little, too late. “Oh God, that was terrible,” my brother said as the credits rolled.

Watching the episode recently, my opinion hadn’t changed. It was like watching paint dry, with commercial breaks between coats.  I was a little wiser than I was in 1987, however. I realized that, though deadly dull, the “Hillman” episode did two things of note.

First, The Cosby Show accurately captured a commencement ceremony. My college graduation was torture to endure. Our commencement address was given by a New Jersey politician who, like most New Jersey politicians, wound up going to jail. I don’t remember a damn thing he said besides “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!” He’d say that before rambling on for 20 more minutes. “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!” he’d ask. 30 would roll by. I fell asleep, almost strangling myself with the hood part of my cap and gown. People started bouncing beach balls. Someone yelled for the prison-bound politico to shut the fuck up. He responded “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!

Second, the “Hillman” episode served as a pilot of sorts for The Cosby Show’s lone spinoff, A Different World. I didn’t realize this back in the day because I thought A Different World was a way of getting Denise off The Cosby Show. That year, Denise’s portrayer, Lisa Bonet, did a piece of filth-flarn-filth called Angel Heart. Rumor had it that the Cos was furious that she made an R-rated blood, guts and sex picture while entertaining children on his show. So he created a vehicle to get her away from the kiddies. It’s a good thing Cosby didn’t produce Sesame Street, because Gordon’s movie choices would have killed him. Hell, Maria was in Death Wish! Sesame Street Bill Cosby would have seen this double feature and given birth to a hoagie sandwich at the movie theater.

Of course, the Denise rumors turned out to be false. Her character returned to The Cosby Show a few years later, bringing Raven-Symone with her. Bonet’s tenure on A Different World lasted one year before she and then husband Lenny Kravitz did some real life filth-flarn-filth of their own. A pregnant Denise wouldn’t be a good idea on any TV show, so Lisa Bonekkid disappeared from TV screens altogether for a while. A Different World lasted 5 more seasons without her, and sandwiched between The Cosby Show and Cheers on NBC’s biggest night of the week, it had very good ratings for most of its tenure.

A Different World has an interesting kinship with Spike Lee’s second feature, School Daze. Both are about historically Black colleges, and many of the faces from School Daze appear as guest stars or cast members of A Different World. World premiered on NBC six months before School Daze hit theaters, but Daze was filmed six months before A Different World’s pilot aired. Both vehicles shared a casting agent, Robi Reed, who placed actors like Jasmine Guy, Darryl M. Bell, Kadeem Hardison and many others in Bill Cosby’s employ. This dispels the widely held belief that School Daze was Lee’s cribbing of the show, though it’s not hard to see why that was considered: Hardison, Bell and Guy played similar characters for Lee and the Cos.

Throughout its six seasons, A Different World gave numerous Black actors and entertainers the chance to guest star or recur on the show. It was a reunion of folks I saw in my childhood movie theaters. Mary Alice appeared in the first two seasons. Glynn Turman traded in his awesome J.D.’s Revenge conk for five seasons in a military haircut. Super Fly star Ron O’Neal and Claudine’s Diahann Carroll played parents of the show’s most memorable character, Whitley Gilbert. Patti Labelle and Harold Sylvester played parents of the show’s second most memorable character, Dwayne Wayne. Gladys Knight played herself. Sinbad was a coach for a few seasons. Tisha Campbell reunited with her School Daze co-stars in an episode about HIV. And Lou Myers, who passed away two days ago at 77, played a sassy, hilarious grumpy old man of a cook. Myers’ Vernon got away with asking Labelle’s character “Did anybody tell you that you look like that singer, Patti Lolabelle?”

A Different World’s first season is an odd one. With a slow theme song sung by Phoebe Snow and co-written by Dawnn Lewis, who played Jaleesa on the show, A Different World played out like a cornier Saved by the Bell. There wasn’t much to make Hillman College feel like Morehouse or Spelman, and absent the tension of siblings and her comical father, Denise was kind of dull. It didn’t help that she was being upstaged both by Marisa Tomei’s ditzy White broad and Jasmine Guy’s Southern belle Scarlett NegrO’Hara, I mean, Whitley Gilbert. Whitley was pretty mean during the first season, serving more as reliable antagonist than fleshed out character. Denise was also not as interesting as Hardison’s Dwayne Wayne, a clueless horndog with flip-up shades who had a thing for her. Dwayne and Whitley were the most memorable characters from the first season, and had Denise stayed, I don’t think A Different World would have lasted as long as it did.

With Denise’s exit, Phylicia Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen took creative control of the show. She shaped it around Dwayne and Whitley, both together and separately, and made the setting more recognizable as a Black college. Mention was made of step shows, homecoming, history and the different conflicts that were arising on campuses like Morehouse and Allen’s alma mater, Howard. The show even got a remake of the theme song and its opening credits. Gone was the slow, harmonica-laden Phoebe Snow version; in its place was a fast, funky cover by Aretha Franklin. In season 6, that was replaced by a misguided Boys II Men version, but from Season 2 on, the opening credits were presented as a long tracking shot of the characters doing different things as their credits appeared. I can’t recall a more kinetic sitcom opening.

Without Denise, A Different World tackled the controversial, adult topics from which The Cosby Show would have shied away. Taimak, aka Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon, played a rapist who attacks one of the main characters. Tisha Campbell played a student who reveals she has HIV. Topics like the Gulf War (represented by Blair Underwood as a cadet about to shipped out to war), racism (Lois and Clark's Dean Cain appeared in this episode as a racist football player), apartheid, domestic abuse and even School Daze’s bread-and-butter of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned Blacks were addressed. One of the most memorable—and shocking—episodes for me dealt with Whitley Gilbert’s discovery that her Black ancestors OWNED slaves.

The daily interaction between teachers, students, and alumni made up most of the plots. As the seasons passed, characters advanced and even graduated, while new characters came in as freshmen. In season 5, for example, Dwayne Wayne became a teacher at Hillman and had to rebuff the advances of a freshman named Lena, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. While we followed several characters with different motivations, we always returned to the plotline of Whitey and Dwayne (or “Dwaaaayne” as she called him). They were the show’s on-again, off-again couple. When he was ready, she wasn’t available and vice versa. He went through a relationship with a  Japanese/Black woman named Kinu, and in a nod to School Daze’s "Dean Big Brother ALL-mi-TEE" character, Jasmine Guy hooked up with a dude named Julian. The show dragged this out for multiple seasons, and it became soapy but remained entertaining.

Orbiting around the show’s lovebirds were Jaleesa, who had dating plotlines with both Sinbad and Turman’s Colonel Taylor; Freddie (Cree Summer), an activist with hair that made Hushpuppy look like she had an Ultra Perm; Ronald (Darryl M. Bell), a friend of Dwayne’s, and Kim (Charnele Brown), a dark-skinned medical student who’s afraid of cadavers and does a stint as a singer in one episode. Later seasons added Gina (Ajai Sanders), a woman who becomes a victim of domestic abuse, and the aforementioned Lena, who seemed to exist solely to bring Wilona from Good Times to college.

Unlike The Cosby Show or Cheers, I don’t find myself longing to revisit much of A Different World. This isn’t to say the show wasn’t good. As with School Daze, I appreciated the series bringing me into a world I wished I could have inhabited. I wanted to go to a historically Black college, but fate (and more importantly, my PARENTS) had something to do with my winding up with the Jesuits. I guess I’m not compelled to seek it out when it’s on simply because as I age, the last thing I want to be reminded of is college. It was a time when I was young and hungry, and now that I’m old and falling apart, I envy the kid I once was. That, and I admit the show ran on at least one season too many. But even at its worst, it’s still miles ahead of that damn “Hillman” episode of The Cosby Show.

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