Debuting September 24, 1987, on NBC, the weekly, half-hour sitcom A Different World originated as a spin-off of the enormously popular The Cosby Show, which, during its first season, it followed on Thursday nights. Lisa Bonet reprised her familiar Cosby Show role as Denise Huxtable, 19-year-old daughter of Cleveland obstetrician Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby), who at the outset of A Different World was beginning her sophomore year at the largely black Hillman College, her dad's alma mater. Lisa lived in Gilbert Hall, a girl's dorm, with her two roommates and fellow students, naïve white girl Maggie Lawton (Marisa Tomei), and 26-year-old black divorcée Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis). The girls' neighbor across the hall was spoiled, imperious Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), while the dorm director was first Stevie Rollins (Loretta Devine) and then Lettie Bostic (Mary Alice). Representing the male population of Hillman were self-styled Lothario Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and the likeable but irresponsible Ronald Johnson (Darryl M. Bell). Halfway through season one, Sinbad joined the cast as athletic coach Walter Oakes.
After Lisa Bonet became pregnant, she seriously curtailed her Different World appearances, dropping out of the show altogether in season two. At this point, Dawnn Lewis and Jasmine Guy became, for all intents and purposes, the stars of the series. Added to the cast during the second season were Charnele Brown as footloose but iron-willed pre-med student Kim Reese, Cree Summer as the fey, artistically inclined Freddie Brooks, and Glynn Turnan as super-tough calculus professor Col. Clayton "Dr. War" Taylor. Also this season, Lou Myers began making recurring appearances as Vernon Gaines, philosophical chef at local campus hangout The Pit. Starting with season three, Gilbert Hall became a coed dorm, allowing closer contact amongst the various male and female characters -- with the expected results. Walter Oakes became dorm director and resident advisor, while Dwayne Wayne gradually entered into a romance with Whitley Gilbert and Ron developed an attraction to Freddie. Upon graduating, Whitley found work at an art gallery, Kim was employed at a mortuary, and Jaleesa -- who had married Col. Taylor -- became a marketing executive and ran her own employment agency. Eventually, Whitley and Dwayne were married, Ron started his own band, and Freddie enrolled in law school. All the while, new regulars were added to the show: Jada Pinkett as streetwise freshman Lena James, Karen Malina White as the garrulous and overly aggressive Charmaine Brown, Patrick Malone as the punkish-looking but sensitive Terrell, Ajai Sanders as the hyper-judgmental Gina Devereaux, and Joe Morton as Hillman alumnus Senator Byron Douglas III, whom Whitley nearly married before finally deciding upon Wayne. Although A Different World did not shy away from the serious issues facing young African-Americans in the final decade of the 20th century, the series always maintained a positive, upbeat attitude, avoiding easy put-down and insult jokes in favor of sharp, well-defined characterizations with realistic goals and ideals. Lasting 144 episodes, the series ended on July 9, 1993. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi