Expect a different “A Different World” when the NBC series starts its second season tonight.
Even though the college comedy, a spinoff of “The Cosby Show,” was the No. 2 show behind “Cosby” in the Nielsen ratings last season, the producers were unhappy with it, NBC wasn’t satisfied either and TV critics flat out didn’t like it.
The new “A Different World,” which returns at 8:30 p.m., has been completely overhauled. It has a new co-executive producer and director in Debbie Allen, of “Fame” fame. It has the same theme song but a different singer: Aretha Franklin instead of Phoebe Snow. It has a host of new characters and a more adult, realistic approach to college life--all of which the producers hope will win “A Different World” popularity in its own right, not just as the convenient Thursday night bridge between “Cosby” and “Cheers.”
The biggest change in “A Different World,” however, was out of the producers’ control. Lisa Bonet, who starred last season as “Cosby” daughter Denise Huxtable, away from home for the first time at her father’s alma mater, Hillman College, has left the show because she is pregnant.
Bonet will return to “The Cosby Show” tonight as the family’s first college dropout, disguising her pregnancy behind sofas and large grocery bags.
The producers expect that “A Different World” viewers will miss Bonet--who might return to the show after her baby is born--but they remain hopeful that, without her, the series will take on a new ensemble flavor and an identity separate from “Cosby.”
“Whatever it was that was missing from the show last year is now there,” asserts Caryn Mandabach, president of the Carsey-Werner Co., which makes the series for NBC. “It’s just a whole new energy. I think the metaphor that I like to use is that it’s our kitchen, and we’re the cooks, and sometimes it takes a little longer to get it just right.
“What I want now is for people to look at the show and not know what it took for us to get there.”
It took a lot.
This is not the first time the producers of “A Different World” have gone back to the drawing board. Even before the show went on the air last season, it went through numerous changes. Just weeks before its debut, the writing staff was fired, new writers were hired and Anne Beatts, former producer of “Square Pegs,” was brought in to fix up the show in a hurry. The four episodes that already had been completed, which Beatts now derisively calls “The Lost Episodes,” were quickly replaced with new material. One of those shows was scrapped completely; the others were later aired, but buried in the summer schedule “when they (NBC) hoped nobody was watching,” Beatts said.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, actually,” acknowledged Thad Mumford, co-executive producer and head writer on the show, looking back on last season’s woes. Beatts described the first season as “trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel while trying to paint the barrel.”
Enter Debbie Allen, a graduate of Washington’s Howard University, who says her experience as a student at a predominantly black university in the politically volatile 1960s could help lend an air of authenticity and topicality to the show.
“You can look at last year as a beginning,” Allen said. “The characters were very well-liked, and they did some good stories. But overall, I think the show was a little bit immature and a little bit naive for college kids.
“So my job has been to spend a lot of time with the writers, giving them ideas that are significant to a group of people who are going to be our next presidential candidates.”
Mumford and other staffers visited Atlanta’s Spelman and Morehouse colleges and Howard University last summer, interviewing students about what they liked and disliked about the show, and observing youthful attitudes, dress and speech.
Allen and Mandabach said that this year’s stories would show students cramming all night for finals, suffering homesickness and loneliness, worrying about money, grades, unwanted pregnancy or world issues instead of clothes and dates.
“The stories have just been rolling off the typewriter once we understood the commitment to the age and the place,” Mandabach said. “I’m so happy we have this landscape, because nobody else is doing it.”
Beatts, who described her departure as a “mutual decision,” expressed surprise when informed that “A Different World” was going topical.
“I suppose that’s an interesting twist,” she said. “It really seemed that last year the push from Carsey-Werner and NBC was to keep it very light. I would have loved to do more controversial shows, but that was the philosophy--just like Cosby didn’t do tough shows, we were to keep it light and comic and youth-oriented.”
Now developing other projects, Beatts guessed that the departure of Bonet “will not hurt them in the least. When I was working on it, people would say to me: ‘It’s good, but why is Lisa Bonet on the show?’ The greater ensemble will make for something more interesting.”
Gauging from studio audience reactions last season, she said, viewers were more enthusiastic about the character of self-styled Southern belle Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) than they ever were about Bonet--even though at first, Beatts said, she was charged with having “ripped off” the insufferably vain character from CBS’ “Designing Women.”
Whitley will have a roommate this season, Kim Reese (Charnele Brown), a strong-willed pre-med student. Other new characters: Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer), a wide-eyed freshman, moves in with the worldly Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), who last season shared a room with Bonet and Marisa Tomei (now there are only two in that room); Col. Taylor (Glynn Turman), a hard-nosed math professor whom the students nickname “Dr. War,” and Mr. Gaines (Lou Meyers), the irascible lord of the cafeteria.
Remaining are Whitley and the brainy Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison), along with Tony Award-winner Mary Alice as housemother Lettie Bostic, a role that was recast several times last season. Denise Huxtable’s roommate Maggie (Tomei) has been removed from the cast.
Allen, while stressing that “A Different World” will remain first and foremost a comedy, believes that the political awareness of her own college days is still alive on college campuses in 1988.
“The university situation was a volatile hotbed for changing the world--at least it was while I was in school; we were trying to redefine the system,” she said. “That ability still exists. It has to--or we’re dead.”