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Friday, April 11, 2014

A Different World

Today is Friday, which means that we're going to be talking about a television show that was launched as a spin-off of another show altogether.  And, believe it or not, I almost considered not doing a spotlight on this show because I thought I already covered it.

(This has been a general concern that I have been having lately.  After all, I have been keeping this blog an ongoing project for nearly three years now.)

That's one of the reasons why you will see why I have added a gigantic search bar directly below the main logo of this blog.  Mind you, a part of the reason why I did this was so that all of you could have the opportunity to have the chance to see if you could find your favourite topics via an actor's name, a television show title, or song lyrics.  But I have to admit that there was an ulterior motive for putting that search bar on my blog.  I use it to check and see which topics I have covered, and which topics I haven't.  Because as good as my memory is, I still need to have some sort of assistance in trying to remember what topics I've covered and haven't covered.

Luckily, after a brief search, it turns out that today's topic is one that I haven't done yet.  However, I have already done a topic on the parent show that this particular sitcom stemmed from.

Of course everybody knows the television series "The Cosby Show".  At the peak of its 1984-1992 run, the series was definitely one of the most successful sitcoms to ever air on television.  In fact, it consistently ranked at the top of the Nielsen ratings for several years - well, at least until "The Simpsons" dethroned it in 1990.  But still, the television sitcom was a show that was a ratings winner, and made household names of Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Raven-Symone, Keshia Knight-Pulliam, Tempestt Bledsoe, and Lisa Bonet.

And, while we're on the subject, let's talk a little bit about Lisa Bonet, or the former Mrs. Lenny Kravitz, or Lilakoi Moon, or whatever name she happens to be going by these days.  As most of you know, Lisa played the role of middle daughter Denise Huxtable.  And, when "The Cosby Show" debuted in 1984, Denise was considered to be the offbeat Huxtable.  While she was always good in school and got good grades, she was considered to be the kind of person who chose her own path in life, and who would always rebel against what everyone else was doing.  She was happy just following her own path.  And, Denise was also very popular in her high school years, often changing boyfriends as much as people change their jockey shorts.  But, lest you think Denise was easy, she was always portrayed as the "good girl", as opposed to Theo and Vanessa, who almost always were the Huxtable kids who would more often than not get into trouble.

So, when Denise's character graduated high school at the end of season three, producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner came up with the idea to spin-off Denise's character onto another show that they created featuring Denise's adventures at the fictional Hillman College in the state of Virginia.

The television show was called "A Different World", and it debuted on September 24, 1987 on NBC.  Appropriately enough, for the majority of the show's run, it would air at 8:30pm on Thursdays, immediately after "The Cosby Show".

And, again, as I stated, the main intention of "A Different World" was to follow Denise Huxtable through her college years, with Denise periodically dropping onto the occasional episode of "The Cosby Show" for guest appearances.  But let's just say that something happened along the way that caused the main premise of the show to derail considerably.

When Lisa Bonet turned twenty years old, she had decided to elope with then breakout rock musician Lenny Kravitz.  A few months later, Lisa Bonet ended up getting pregnant with Lenny's child.  That child, Zoe Kravitz, would be born in December 1988.

Now, in most cases, this would not be a big deal.  In Lisa Bonet's case, it was an extremely big deal.  You see, Denise Huxtable was the star of the show, and showrunners felt that it would not be suitable for an unwed Denise to end up knocked up during her first year of college.  It seemed to be a decision that Bonet mutually agreed with, and in the spring of 1988, Bonet left "A Different World", and would eventually rejoin the cast of "The Cosby Show" after giving birth to Zoe.

Of course, this lead to a bit of a crisis at the end of the show's first year.  With the main character gone, how could the show possibly survive?

Well, showrunners brought forth a familar face to help them revamp the series for the second season.  Former "Fame" actress Debbie Allen (who ironically enough is the younger sister of Phylicia Rashad who played Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show") was brought aboard to make the necessary changes to the show to keep it on the air. 

The first change was to bring forth a new main character of the series, and Allen succeeded by elevating supporting cast members Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison to lead cast members.  Guy and Hardison as you know played the roles of spoiled bad girl Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne respectively.  Dawnn Lewis was also kept on the show in the role of Jaleesa Vinson until her departure later in the series.

But because change number two meant that Hillman College would become more of an African-American school, this meant that the non-black cast members of the program were let go.  This included future movie star Marisa Tomei, if you can believe it.

But with the departure of Tomei, Loretta Devine, and Marie-Alise Recasner came new students in the form of Kimberly Reese (Charnele Brown) and Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer).  As well, some new adult figures were added to the cast which featured Glynn Turman as Colonel Taylor and Sinbad as Coach Oakes.

Certainly these changes were risky, but the show's ratings were high enough during season one that it was automatically renewed for a second season that it was worth a shot.  Who knew that these changes would actually keep the show on the air for an additional five seasons, with "A Different World" ending in July 1993?

You want to know what else lasted from 1987-1993?  Lisa Bonet's marriage to Lenny Kravitz.  Quite a coincidence, no?

Of course, the reason why the show lasted a grand total of six seasons in all had very little to do with the cast changes, though I suppose in some manner, it was more realistic to do so, since most people only spend an average of four years in college - well, unless you go off to med school, that is.

If anything, I think it had to do with the fact that "A Different World" touched upon certain subjects and plots that other sitcoms never really dealt with out of lack of knowledge, fear of retribution, or controversy killing ratings.  "A Different World" truly was a different show in the spectrum of evening sitcoms because of the fact that the program did take some risks.

For instance, did you know that "A Different World" became one of the very first sitcoms to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic?  It seems hard to believe that it took until 1990 for a television sitcom to even speak about AIDS, given that it was first discovered nine years earlier in 1981, but a fourth season episode of the show featured a guest appearance by Tisha Campbell-Martin, who was playing the role of a student at the school who was dying of AIDS.  It also featured the harsh realities of having a lack of understanding of the disease at that time when some of the students began shunning her because they were afraid of catching it (which as we all know is impossible because AIDS is not an airborne virus).  It was definitely a powerful episode, as well as an educational one.

But there have been others as well.  The sitcom tackled the subject of date rape, when Freddie almost becomes a victim of it herself.  Fortunately, she was rescued by Dwayne, but it was a very terrifying ordeal for her, as well as a very educational episode, showing people what steps they can take to prevent becoming a victim themselves.

The show also dealt with topics that focused solely on black history as well.  There was an episode that talked about how during the era of slavery, that it was entirely possible for African-Americans to have slaves.  Certainly Whitley was stunned to learn that some of her ancestors held slaves.  An episode entitled "Cat's In The Cradle" dealt with the topic of racism and how it wasn't necessarily a black and white issue...particularly when it displayed that prejudice can affect people of any colour.  The show even referenced the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal as well as the Los Angeles riots of April 1992 which took place after the acquittal of the police officers responsible for beating Rodney King.

It truly was a show that was quite current for its time - even more so than "Murphy Brown"!

And to initially began as a spin-off venture for a Huxtable...and yet over the years, it became much more.

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