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.
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.
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.
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.
With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern.
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.
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.
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.