Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Red Beans and Rice: Revisiting A Different World

I recently watched a marathon of episodes from one of my all-time favorite TV sitcoms and (deep sigh)...how did we allow this show to go on for so long past its prime? I know this is a blasphemous question and it might upset a lot of folks, but why did we let them ruin this show after the third season?

Yeah, I said it! It was a lucky show its first season, a much improved show in its second, and a great show by its third season. It didn't exactly plunge from great to bad in the fourth season, but it did begin to slip to simply good. By the fifth season, which gave us the iconic Gilbert-Wayne wedding finale, it had jumped the shark, only we were too caught up in the excitement to admit it. Which is why the last season is practically unwatchable, even though we tried. 

Now please keep reading, because I promise not to offer a trash take on how various couples were toxic mis-matches or how obvious it was that Byron Douglass III went on to become Eli Pope on Scandal...because no, it is pretty simple. On a show that was supposed to depict life at an HBCU in the late 80s and early 90s, that should have remained its focus. If it had, then I would be much more content about the three hours I spent watching episodes from that fifth season on Saturday morning. Because now I really kinda hate the wedding episode too.

The Hub jokes that Black sitcoms in that era were good for those very special episodes, and that was A Different World ("ADW") in a nutshell. It was the definitive very special show because it highlighted several of the issues that were relevant during that time: date rape, unplanned pregnancy, Apartheid, intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS, and the debate over the continued relevance of these institutions. All of those issues were covered in those two brilliant seasons, along with racism, campus protests, career choices, work/life balance, moving off campus, and yes, relationship issues (which did take up an inordinate amount of time in real life and on-screen). 

In addition to be topical, the show also gave us archetypes of the different personalities that one would encounter on an HBCU campus. I cannot speak for how these same characters would have fared at a PWI, but most of the people I know from college were composites of characters on ADW. Of course because I went to a woman's college in the deep South, half the women on campus could have been the model for Whitley Gilbert. A fair number of sisters were working class, first-generation over-achievers like Kimberly Reese and Jaleesa Vinson, the non-traditional student with high ambition and hyper-focus (before she married Colonel Taylor and was ruined). There were too many Ron Johnsons, but that could just be my impression of how many brothers walked around trying to be players. There were an equal number of goofy-smart brothers like Dwayne Wayne, as well as many free-spirited bohemians like Freddie Brooks. Although Walter Oakes was technically not a student, there were a number of those older dudes who stuck around for years until a new opportunity to move on finally presented itself. 

That was the classic core group of students, and if they had done a better job of introducing and incorporating the second and third wave that consisted of Terrence, Lena, Gina, Dorian, Terrell, and Charmaine, I would argue that we could have had five very good seasons instead of three. There is no real need to go back to autopsy the first season because we all know that it was a disaster.

Now that we are in this moment of rediscovering HBCUs, of course watching any episode of this show would make me get nostalgic. You already know it doesn't take much for me to take to my soapbox to promote support of HBCUs. And now that we have entered a realignment phase wherein others are lending their voice to the same righteous cause, I welcome that because we need all of the help we can get. Part of the pitch to this next generation will include how popular culture can shape our impressions and relates to our experiences.

Currently, there is a meme circulating on Facebook that asks which fictional HBCU would you attend, and the choices are Mission College (School Daze), Hillman College (A Different World), Atlanta A&M (Drumline), and Truth University (Stomp the Yard). Mind you, all of those shows/movies were filmed in the Atlanta University Center...(and that is my shot across the bow to my Howard University alumni friends reading this :) 

However, the meme does correct a common misconception that ADW was the last noteworthy time an HBCU was prominently featured in popular culture. There was also a short-lived show on BET called The Quad and references to other real-life HBCUs have been incorporated on popular television shows (This Is Us, Blackish, and POSE).  Director Will Packer made sure that we knew that the Flossy Posse from his hit Girls' Trip movie met at his alma mater, Florida A&M University (FAMU). And obviously, there is Madame Vice President Kamala Harris. 

What ADW did was lay the foundation. I know School Daze (1988) was a contemporaneous depiction with several of the series stars featured in prominent roles, but it is safe to say that more people have seen episodes of the TV show than remember that film. (And as much as I love that movie, it is problematic on several levels.) If there had been no ADW, I am unsure if we would have had such a significant pop cultural reference point that inspired so many people to enroll at HBCUs in the 90s.

Therefore, we must start by giving credit to Bill Cosby for making this possible. The first references to Hillman College were made in the first season of The Cosby Show when it was introduced as the alma mater of Heathcliff, Clair, and Grandpa Huxtable. Whether it was intended from the beginning to spin-off another show about an HBCU or whether the concept evolved based on other factors is anyone's guess, since its debut also coincided with the millions Cosby gave away to several institutions at the same time. Neither Cosby nor his real-life wife attended HBCUs, but three of their children did. Whatever motivated this concept, once that ball got rolling, the rest is history.

Okay, so I will offer a few thoughts about the first season of ADW: look closely and you will note that several of the cast regulars and guests appeared together in an iconic blaxploitation parody in 1988 and then in a ground-breaking comedy sketch show that began airing on a renegade new network in 1990. And that is pretty much all that needs to be said... 

Once the show was re-framed around the HBCU experience, it struck gold. By bringing in producer-director Debbie Allen, who attended Howard University, she remade Hillman into an unapologetically Black institution, representative of the times. Her first brilliant move was to introduce younger characters, which is why Kimberly Reese and Freddie Brooks were such strong additions. With Denise Huxtable and Maggie Lauten gone, Freddie offered burgeoning bohemian feminism and naiveté in one character; Kimberly gave us a more relatable Jaleesa without all of the adult baggage. Several of the better very special episodes centered on them. Ron Johnson's transformation from puppy to dog was crucial. Dwayne's maturation provided an interesting foil to Whitley's consistency--she remained a spoiled rich girl, just more likeable once they ditched her first season flunky. Before the show became dependent on the Gilbert-Wayne love story, it had actually been a solid ensemble effort.

College Band Trip c. 1990

Which is how most of us fondly remember our college experience, with our friends. With our friends in the dorms, in the library, in class, on the quad, in the cafeteria, at games, at parties, and everywhere else we went. Those are the fond memories that we relive every Homecoming, every Graduation/Reunion, at dinner parties and brunch, in our Facebook groups, and pretty much every chance we get to reminisce. So part of the frustration with the love story taking over was how it over-shadowed everything else.

Not that our romantic entanglements weren't integral to our college experience, but there was so much more going on. Minus the song and dance number, that episode about the Persian Gulf War mirrored our anxiety on campus about that conflict. The Mammy episode still remains one of the most powerful refutations of colorism (soooo much better than how Spike Lee addressed it in School Daze). Before Freddie hit the Freddiest peak of annoying, one of her best episodes dealt with acquaintance rape. Ron and Dwayne pledging together provided that bittersweet reminder that even best friends often have to follow their own paths. And as disconcerting as the AIDS episode is to watch all of these years later, it is an important reminder of how we once thought of HIV as both a death sentence and a punishment for pre-marital promiscuity.

Of course I was rooting for a Gilbert-Wayne romance to blossom, and possibly rekindle, but not at the expense of the other characters and stories. When Whitley decided to stay in school for another year, it was to take additional classes to prepare for a corporate art buying career that most of us had no idea existed. It was relatable that she spent much of the season finding creative ways to earn money, although not by working for her friends as a maid (because we were all broke). And how ridiculous was it for Dwayne to sell his computer to help her with her tuition? When the campus was abuzz over that book written by Shazza Zulu (perennial undergraduate), did that really need to have a Whitley and Dwayne subplot when the real point was to navigate the minefield of interracial dating at an HBCU? Why was Whitley the director of the campus time capsule video when Freddie should have been the more obvious choice? And so on...I could revisit half of the episodes from that fourth season and point out how the show had lost focus. 

Or perhaps it had been decided that in the limited universe of other sitcoms with Black characters in lead roles, ADW had to be more than a show about college. The other Black sitcoms on air that overlapped during that same era (1987-1993) were: The Cosby Show (1984-1992), 227 (1985-1990), What's Happening Now (1985-1988), Amen (1986-1991), Frank's Place (1987-1988), Family Matters (1989-1998), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), Roc (1991-1994), Martin (1992-1997), and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper (1992-1997). In other words, there were phases during its run when ADW was the only show that was not a goofy family sitcom, lasted longer than one season, and didn't rely on too many of the stereotypical sitcom tropes that had been so frustrating on other shows. 

On a show built around characters who were supposed to exist in a finite time and space, it was necessary to introduce new cast members to the core group each season. The problem was in the transitioning out the older main characters. Part of the point of college is to move on to make space for the new students to have their own very special episodes instead of being relegated to the supporting cast of what essentially became a romantic comedy. Walter Oakes, who had been on the front burner as the dorm director for two seasons languished in the background while Colonel Taylor became the most ubiquitous professor on campus. Oakes' departure came after Colonel Taylor hooked up with Jaleesa, who was also still hanging around campus two years after graduating. Somehow the writers thought she would be useful as a housewife--a prospect she emphatically rejected when it was offered to her with Walter. Then she disappeared, with her newborn without any explanation.

In addition to thinking theirs was the more toxic romantic entanglement, there was the matter of Taylor's son Terrance, who had been introduced as a new student with the promise of his own very special stories to tell. He did get a few, the most significant of which was when he objected to his father being offered membership in an exclusive country club, but the focus was more on Colonel Taylor's decision. Terrence was never fully developed into a more substantial presence (nor was the actor Cory Tyler officially added to the cast). A similar pattern was repeated with Gina Deveaux, who initially appeared as a recurring character with no real introduction, no background, and no major. By the last season when she was included in the new core group, it never made sense to me that an upperclassman would be hanging that tight with a bunch of freshmen...

The Douglass-Gilbert-Wayne love triangle was messy because it was so contrived. Byron Douglass III was old enough to have known better than to get serious with a 24 year old woman three months fresh from a broken engagement, and then expect to marry her six weeks after she slipped up with her ex-fiancé who also worked on his campaign? Or was I the only person who thought that was insane? Furthermore, I always found it frustrating that on the morning of the wedding, Whitley's parents seemed happier about the prospect of her "career" as a future political wife. Was that why they sent her to college for five years? What about the words of the theme song: here's our chance to make it, if we focus on our goals--was it marriage all along? While I definitely appreciate actor Kadeem Hardison's suggested alternative ending, it wouldn't have mattered which man Whitley ended up with because as far as I'm concerned everything for her went down hill from there. And as for these stupid Nick at Nite Hillman College Reunion vignettes, honestly who thought that Dwayne and Whitley were still together?

I've had 30-some years to think through all of this... 

If they did reboot this show (and no, I am not convinced), there is some new ground to cover. One new major issue is the presence of more white students on campus, the very elephant in the dorm room that was IGNORED the entire first season, and that was avoided in the fourth by having Matthew attend another local university. I could think of a few others, including an open LGBTQIA+ relationship, a debate over Black Lives Matter, competing political ideologies on campus post trump, gender equity in athletics, and the consequences of social media abuse. (Or you could just watch Grown-ish and pretend that is an HBCU.) Obviously, a rebooted ADW could also revisit some of the issues that had been raised in the original series and I might tune in for a few episodes. I would need the Aretha Franklin theme song, but with an entirely different opening sequence since that one has been done, redone, overdone... 

However, in spite of everything I just wrote, you do realize this show will forever be one of my favorites, I will always watch the reruns, and I will forever credit it for having inspired my choice to attend an HBCU. One of the great ironic truths that every college alum comes to accept is that our schools were far from perfect, so much like watching a TV series, we never can realistically claim to have loved every show, or every minute of our tenure. It was a brief moment in time, a very special episode of our lives that we get to revisit and remember fondly.

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