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.
Allow me to add that because the show was so topical, that is actually what made it one of history’s funniest sitcoms, right along with Golden Girls which did a seamless mix of social commentary, differing opinions and gags. What was so great about A Different World was how the varying characters all held different beliefs and opinions, and the show never told you which one was the right one. When there was a reporter masquerading as an ex-con, you could feel however you wanted to feel about him. Ron Johnson makes race-related comments to white students at a rival college, you were allowed to agree or disagree with his methods. You favorite character needed his coach to explain to him how rape was rape. Lena, Gina and Charmaine, like Jalessa, Kim, Whitley, and Freddie before them, almost NEVER saw eye-to-eye on any subject. That was the power AND the humor of A Different World.
p.s. and that is why - of all the shows these days getting a reboot (9O21O, Fuller House, Melrose Place, Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Girl Meets World, The Odd Couple, Twin Peaks, The Muppet Show, Heroes, X-Files, Coach - this one is nearly necessary