The Best '90s Show Ever, Hands Down
I’m actually sporting a Hillman College sweatshirt as I write this. And just inches away from my laptop are my retro flip-up glasses—a carbon copy of the ones that Dwayne Wayne wore in the first few seasons of A Different World. In my supply desk is my colorful Whitley Gilbert face mask, which includes the word “Bougie” scrawled in pink. And if you were to take a look at my recent Internet browsing history, you’d see that old episodes of the classic sitcom account for roughly 80 percent of that list.
I know, I know. It's a lot. But there are valid reasons why my nostalgic heart is so taken with this '90s classic. One of them is the undeniable, irrefutable fact that A Different World is the best ‘90s show of all time. Hands down.
For those who aren’t familiar with the series, A Different World is a Cosby Show spin-off that follows a group of students and faculty at the fictional, historically Black Hillman College (AKA Cliff and Clair Huxtable’s alma mater). While the show initially centers on Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) as a new Hillman student, the series got revamped after its first season, introducing a diverse group of Black coeds as they navigate the ups and downs of college life.
Now, I’ve never actually attended a historically Black college, but whenever I watch A Different World (currently on my fourth binge, BTW), I feel like a part of that community. Seeing talented Black students strive to make the world a better place had a profound impact on my own life—and judging by all the fan pages that are out there, it looks like I’m not the only one.
Below, see six reasons why A Different World is the best ‘90s TV show. Period.
1. There’s no other ‘90s show like it
Part of what makes A Different World so legendary is the fact that it made room to tell stories that weren’t being told at the time. Yes, there technically were ‘90s Black sitcoms that briefly touched on campus life (like when Will and Carlton went to ULA on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), but none of them focused specifically on the everyday lives of Black coeds at an HBCU (historically Black college and university).
Thanks to the show’s director, Debbie Allen, who graduated from Howard University (a private HBCU), A Different World offered a refreshing and realistic take on campus life, complete with dorm room break-ins, college parties, late night study sessions and gatherings at everyone’s favorite campus hangout, The Pit. It also explored the challenge of balancing school with work and relationships. And best of all, it highlighted the most exciting parts of student life, from school dances and rush week to stepping competitions.
2. It showed the world that Black people are not a monolith
Anyone who has seen this show would agree that the diversity of the cast is a major reason why A Different World still resonates with fans over three decades later. We got to know so many ambitious and complex characters, all of whom had different personalities. And this meant that more Black viewers could actually see themselves reflected in these TV characters—something that was extremely rare during the show’s run.
In an interview with NBC, Charlene Brown, who played the studious Kim Reese, explained, “There was something for somebody, whatever shade of Black you were or whatever shade of Black you were not. Whatever age group you were in, whether you were retired and trying to make your contribution to these young people like Mr. Gaines was. Whether you were a former military person like Colonel Taylor was. Whether you were somebody who thought it was over for you but you were gonna take a chance on yourself and reboot yourself and try again like Jaleesa was. Or you were privileged and really had no concept of what the average person had to deal with like Whitley was...There was something for everybody.”
3. ‘A Different World’ tackled a number of important issues
A Different World was (wayyyy) ahead of its time, and a lot of it has to do with the way that they addressed social and political issues. It wound up being one of the first shows to openly tackle controversial topics that were rarely ever addressed on TV in the '90s, including HIV, date rape, apartheid and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking episodes is "Cat's In the Cradle," which deals with racism and racial bias. In it, Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Ron Johnson (Darryl M. Bell) get into a heated fight with white students from a rival school after they vandalize Ron's car.
4. But it balanced those serious topics with smart humor
Part of what made this show so brilliant was how the writers balanced serious issues with silly humor and parody. They tackled heavy topics in such an honest way, while also lightening the mood with Jaleesa's sassy comebacks and Whitley's snarky one-liners (complete with the heavy Southern twang).
A memorable episode that illustrates this balance is season six's "The Little Mister," where Dwayne dreams about the 1992 U.S. election—except this time, the genders are switched. In the parody, Whitley (Jasmine Guy) plays Governor Jill Blinton while he plays Hilliard Blinton, a political spouse who has to deal with constant media scrutiny and a major scandal.
5. The show also inspired more people to go to college
On top of delivering great laughs and bringing important issues to the spotlight, A Different World also convinced more young viewers to attend college.
In 2010, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, revealed in The New York Times that American higher education grew by 16.8 percent from 1984 (the debut of The Cosby Show) to 1993 (when A Different World ended). He also added, "During the same time period, historically Black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent—44 percent better than all of higher education."
With the show's exciting portrayal of student life, it's pretty easy to see why there was a spike in those enrollment numbers.
6. It gave us Dwayne and Whitley
I've actually heard people say that their relationship is problematic. Given Whitley's immaturity in making Dwayne wait for so long and Dwayne's failure to commit to her (after his first proposal), I totally get it. But here's the thing. While their relationship was far from perfect, they consistently challenged each other to be the best version of themselves.
Dwayne taught Whitley that there's more to life than material riches and finding a good partner. Whitley taught Dwayne the importance of commitment, responsibility and patience. And as they mentioned in season five's "Save the Best for Last," they actually taught each other how to love. Sure, they came from different backgrounds and they bickered a lot, but it doesn't erase the fact that their chemistry was very real.
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