With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
In its first season, NBC’s singular sitcom A Different World found itself in a peculiar conundrum: The biggest reason for its commercial success was a creative albatross. In all likelihood, A Different World wouldn’t have vaulted into the upper echelon of the Nielsen ratings if not for its connection to The Cosby Show, the massively successful show from which it spun off in 1987. Turning an academic environment into compelling television is always challenging because, under ideal circumstances, the audience will fall in love with characters whose arcs are inherently limited by the length of their matriculation. And yet, Bill Cosby chose a college campus—the fictional, historically black Hillman College—as the first character of his Cosby spin-off, rather than the students attending it.
The concept was naturally adjacent for Cosby, who made it chief among The Cosby Show’s goals to depict an African-American family in which college attendance was not only a goal, but an expected outcome. In addition to the kaleidoscopic sweaters that became Cosby’s trademark, he frequently wore sweatshirts bearing the name of historically black colleges from around the country. Hillman continued to play an important role in Cosby’s mythology, as Cliff and Claire Huxtable (Cosby and Phylicia Rashad) attended Hillman together while engaged and made no secret of their desire for their children to follow in their footsteps.
It wasn’t initially Cosby’s plan to put a character from the Huxtable mothership at the helm of the college-set spin-off; in fact, the main character wasn’t supposed to be black. A Different World was initially conceived as a fish-out-of-water comedy in which a white student attends a historically black college and adapts to the unfamiliar surroundings. Instead, Lisa Bonet was named the show’s lead, and A Different World was built around Denise Huxtable’s sophomore year at Hillman, allowing Cosby viewers to explore the new environment through the eyes of a familiar character. Dawnn Lewis was cast as Jaleesa Vinson, one of Denise’s roommates, and because the idea of including a white student with little knowledge of black culture remained, Marisa Tomei was cast as Denise’s second roommate, Maggie Lauten. Other characters in the Hillman universe were introduced, but always through their relationships with Denise: Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) is the bookish mensch trying in vain to court her, while the forthright-to-a-fault Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) nurtures an ongoing feud with her following a brief, rocky attempt at rooming together.
There are faint traces of an absorbing television show within A Different World’s first season, but that show never coalesced, in large part because the show relied too heavily on Cosby. The pilot was written by John Markus, Carmen Finestra, and Matt Williams, all stalwarts from Cosby’s writers’ room, and though A Different World soon got its own writing staff, it never got its own identity. Huxtables frequently popped up in guest appearances, including three appearances from 8-year-old Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam). It’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of a college-set show struggling to find itself than a trio of appearances from a crossover character still in elementary school. A Different World performed well in the ratings, despite its middling quality, due to brand recognition and Cosby’s divine lead-in. Because it was performing so well, the show might have stayed its bland course if not for the feedback the producers were getting from viewers.
Cosby was challenged to make the show a more accurate depiction of a historically black college campus, so he hired Rashad’s sister, dancer and director Debbie Allen, to take the reins on A Different World and ensure Hillman looked more like Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, Allen’s alma mater. Allen hired Aretha Franklin to re-record the theme song originally sung by Phoebe Snow, one of many major, early decisions she made during a tumultuous time for the show.
Bonet was expecting a child with Lenny Kravitz, and a contract was set to expire for Tomei, whose character was never successfully integrated into season one. Cosby was dead-set against an unplanned, teenage pregnancy for one of the Huxtable children, so Bonet exited the show, as did Tomei, despite Allen’s effort to create a larger role for her in the second season. Hardison and Guy became A Different World’s de facto stars, their characters gradually developing a romance as Dwayne worked through his unrequited love for Denise and Whitley’s ice-queen persona thawed. More students were added to the show, including driven med student Kimberly Reese (Charnele Brown), free-spirited hippy-chick Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer), and Ron Johnson (Darryl M. Bell), Dwayne’s best friend, who recurred in the first season and was promoted to the regular cast in season two.
Allen’s influence on the show extended far past the cast changes; Cosby gave Allen considerable creative control, and she used it to turn A Different World into one of the most elegantly topical television shows of all-time. A Different World wasn’t reinventing the wheel by addressing such topics as date rape, colorism, racism, and HIV infection. Multi-camera sitcoms of the late ’80s and early ’90s reveled in controversial issues, but most of those topical episodes are hard to take seriously because they require the introduction of grave topics into family or workplace environments where they don’t naturally fit. The “very special episode” became such a laughingstock, a commercial promoting “an episode of Blossom that will get your family talking” was enough to inspire giggle fits.
A Different World was immune to the adverse effects of introducing serious topics into a sitcom because with Hillman as its backdrop, it lived up to its title. The show’s unique environment was unfamiliar to many viewers and was ideally conducive to topical episodes. College is about students feeling out their identities, challenging their most closely held beliefs, and exploring new ways of looking at the world. It’s also the time when kids get their first intoxicating taste of freedom, and enough latitude to make consequential mistakes. Those universal dynamics have contours all their own for students at historically black colleges. When students choose a college like Hillman, that’s a political statement in itself, a commitment to shaping and refining a black identity and immersing themselves in black culture. With those students as television characters, solemn topics can be gracefully folded into stories and dialogue without a speed bump. A Different World isn’t one of history’s funniest sitcoms, but it’s certainly one of the most revolutionary, and a rare example of a sitcom that works as a vessel for even the thorniest of ideas.
“Radio Free Hillman” (season two, episode 10): A Different World began its socially conscious era in what now seems like an innocuous way, by taking on music censorship. But the subject was a hot topic when the episode aired, as the Parents Music Resource Center waged an ideological war against the music industry to compel the use of parental advisory stickers on albums deemed too explicit for young ears. Dwayne Wayne, who DJs Hillman’s radio station, gets first crack at “Cleaning Out The House,” the racy new single by Dapper D, and the song hasn’t even finished its first spin before the school has shut down the signal. “Radio Free Hillman” does an admirable job of presenting the nuances rather than simplifying the issue to “Censorship is bad.” The episode also features Hillman’s first non-violent protest, a nod to the rich history of black college students and their acts of peaceful resistance.
“No Means No” (season two, episode 20): By the end of the second season, Allen had fully assumed creative control over A Different World, but that’s not enough alone to keep Cosby’s tarnished reputation from casting a shadow over the show’s episode addressing campus rape. It’s a shame because “No Means No” is a responsible take on the subject told through the perspective of Freddie, whose willful naiveté often blinds her to the ill intentions of others. Sexually inexperienced Freddie wants to believe the best about her new romantic interest Garth (Taimak), but Dwayne is concerned about Garth’s reputation for aggressiveness and fears Freddie could be putting herself in a dangerous situation. Dwayne manages to intervene before Garth goes too far, but the episode never takes away Freddie’s agency.
“Answered Prayers” (season three, episode nine): Faith is a subject most long-running sitcoms play with at some point, but A Different World had a refreshing take on the subject because its characters are in a state of spiritual limbo. In “Answered Prayers,” the characters examine the spiritual beliefs instilled in them and decide whether or not to accept the worldview that previously felt assigned to them. “I don’t go to church much these days, except when I go home and my mom makes me,” says Dwayne, reflecting the experience of many black college students raised in the church but not inclined to bring their religious upbringing to campus with them. But despite his infrequent church attendance, Dwayne has developed enlightened views on faith that come in handy when the unchurched Freddie takes up prayer when Kim’s policeman father is hurt in the line of duty, only to find out that you don’t always get what you pray for.
“Pride And Prejudice” (season three, episode 14): Whitley began the show’s run as a shrill mean girl, so difficult to get along with, Denise moves in with her to escape a tyrannical Jaleesa, then almost immediately decides she was better off before. The writers toned Whitley down to make her the female lead when Bonet’s departure left a vacancy, but she remained a snobby Southern belle whose wealthy upbringing insulated her from the reality of racism. Whitley is so entrenched in her better-than-you attitude, Freddie can’t convince her that a dismissive clerk at a high-end jewelry store is discriminating against her. Even when Whitley gets a clue about how she’s being treated and why, she tries to find a reason to justify the behavior so she doesn’t have to face her shopping addiction or her superiority complex. But she ultimately passes on a gold watch after interacting with a racist clerk who won’t give her the time of day.
“A World Alike” (season three, episode 16): Apartheid became a pet cause on historically black college campuses, as reflected by “A World Alike” as well as Spike Lee’s School Daze, which also took place at a fictional HBC and explored similar themes. In A Different World’s take, Whitley falls for Julian (Dominic Hoffman), a restless activist type who’s targeting Hillman for being financially entangled with a social company with South African interests. The boy-crazy Whitley is won over to the cause, but the issue is complicated when the same soda company selects Kim to receive a much-needed scholarship. Kim ultimately makes the tough choice and rejects the money, but “A World Alike” shrewdly explores the real-world limitations of young people’s passion politics.
“War And Peace” (season four, episode 12): Blair Underwood guests in the show’s riff on the Persian Gulf conflict, an episode written by Hoffman and Guy after their work together in “A World Alike.” Underwood played the terrifically named Zelmer Collier, a childhood friend of Dwayne’s whose reserve unit is put into active duty. Zelmer initially puts on a brave face, tossing around platitudes about duty and valor, but he’s crumbling inside, fearing he’ll lose his life just as he’s begun accomplishing the goals he set out for himself. A young Underwood, on loan from L.A. Law, turns in a magnificent performance, and Hoffman and Guy’s script ends on an appropriately ambivalent note. A week after the episode premiered, the U.S. launched an aerial assault on Iraq.
“Ms. Understanding” (season four, episode 17): “Ms. Understanding” leads the race for A Different World’s most incendiary episode, an unavoidable result of taking its inspiration from a most incendiary source: The Blackman’s Guide To Understanding The Blackwoman. Shahrazad Ali’s bizarre, misogynistic screed about how the ills of the black community are rooted in black women and their refusal to accept that they have small brains. The message went over about as well as expected, and the show’s writers took the conversation on at the height of its volume. Shazza Zulu (Gary Dourdan) writes a book to help the Hillman woman understand the Hillman man, and at Hillman, just as in real life, the book sparks an artificial battle of the sexes until both sides realize what an unworthy crusade it is.
“If I Should Die Before I Wake” (season four, episode 23): Whoopi Goldberg and Tisha Campbell guest star in this episode, with Goldberg playing a demanding speech professor who assigns her class a speech in which they imagine the remaining years of their lives, helping them to crystallize their vision of the future. Josie (Campbell) has a far less rosy outlook than her peers because she’s contracted HIV in an era long before the pharmaceutical advancements that have helped quell the stigma. The episode shows its age everywhere, including its exclusive references to AIDS before the relationship before the significance of the HIV virus was widely understood. But the episode takes great care to dispel pervasive myths, going so far in doing so that the characters sometimes sound like they’re reading from free-clinic brochures. But even when the dialogue is right on the nose, A Different World manages to make it sound like socially conscious college students just talking.
“Mammy Dearest” (season five, episode 11): “Mammy Dearest” is among the highlights of the show’s entire run, anchored by a confident, vulnerable performance by Brown as Kim confronts the complicated history of black women in America. Whitley includes mammy imagery among other historical representations of black women in her dorm’s dedication ceremony, rankling the mahogany-toned Kim, who can’t separate the images from torment she’s received because of her dark skin and full lips. Fair-skinned Whitley, whose forebears were slave owners, has trouble understanding Kim’s offensive, leading to conversations around colorism in the black community that could have never happened on any other show. After some soul searching, Kim becomes the star of the ceremony and puts on a rousing performance, acknowledging that she can see her reflection in all of the images of black women. That includes the mammy, whose toothy grin belies the well of inner-strength behind it.
“Cat’s In The Cradle” (season five, episode 14): Hillman gets its own version of Rashomon when Dwayne and Ron get into an altercation with racist boors from a nearby majority white college (Dean Cain plays the ringleader). It begins with a friendly wager on a Hillman game between Ron and the racist students. Ron’s rivals are less than thrilled when he wins the bet, and they vandalize his car, spraying it with the N-word. A fight breaks out and everyone gets thrown in jail, where each man gets to tell his dramatically different version of the story. It’s not an original idea, but a rare example of A Different World playing with structure, with the result an episode that distills why black men have issues with cops. When Ron and Dwayne tell their stories, they do so knowing that all the truth in the world won’t necessarily help them if a white police officer with no dog in the fight has to pick someone to identify with.
Availability: The complete series is available for streaming through Netflix and Hulu Plus.