While The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, a series which focused on the lives of multiple students at the fictional historically black Hillman College in Virginia, has gone down as being one of the greatest black sitcoms of all time, there was a time when it was one of the most culturally relevant shows on the small screen, primarily for black youth and young adults. During it's six-season run from 1987 to 1993, A Different World expertly navigated issues like the growing AIDS epidemic, rape, homelessness, love, and the inner turmoil that young black people were facing at the time. When the racial tension in Los Angeles exploded into a wildfire of riots following the Rodney King verdict, there was no way for A Different World to not address it, so in their two-part season six premiere (which aired roughly six months following the riots), Allen and company tackled the topic head-on with "Honeymoon In L.A."
The way in was an easy one. The cliffhanger of season five was the surprise—and long-awaited—marriage of Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert. Their honeymoon was a trip to Los Angeles, cruising the streets in a pink Cadillac while checking out the many sights (on location, a first for the series). The two-parter found Dwayne and Whitley telling the story of their honeymoon to the students and faculty returning to Hillman College, aka the place they fell in love and spent most of their early adult lives growing up.
At the time, the writers of the show knew they had to dig into this story on the series. A Different World head writer and executive producer Susan Fales told the L.A. Times that "Dealing with this is expected of us, and we knew we had to do it." And what they chose to do was have Whitley and Dwayne rolling down the street as the Rodney King verdict was being announced. That moment opened itself up to a conversation between the newlyweds, with Whitley thinking the result ("Guilty, guilty, guilty!") was obvious, primarily because this wasn't "1965 in Selma, Alabama," and that white salespeople taking their money during their extravagant shopping spree was equal to "progress." Dwayne begged to differ, reminding his wife that "most black folk never get a chance to test your theory."
After being split up during an argument regarding what they would be doing next on their trip, the newlyweds decided to split up...just as the riots were about to hit. Whitley, lost on foot in Beverly Hills, at one point had to act like a mannequin in a department store in fear that the looters would attack her. In a surprising twist, that shop was not only frequented by Tom and Roseanne Arnold, but a number of white women who took advantage of the riots to grab all of the bikinis and tennis skirts that they desired. It's interesting to point out that in a pre-social media era, Debbie Allen purposefully wanted to highlight a side of the riots that you wouldn't see on television; something that we are still struggling with today. Meanwhile, Dwayne was in South Central, getting caught up outside of a convenience store mid-looting trying to get directions back to Beverly Hills. A conversation with one man lead to a squad of looters filling his Caddy up with stolen goods, before an argument with the convenience store owner bringing the death of Latasha Harlins into the conversation.
One of the most important moments in the episode featured Sister Souljah, who at the time was mostly known for her work with Public Enemy but has since grown into multiple roles (author, activist, and film producer). In May 1992, an interview with the Washington Post took a comment she made ("If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?") out of context, causing a firestorm that had her even catching flack from then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton clapping at her; Souljah's comment was really about the mentality of a gang member, who's already killing people that look like him or her, might have no issue with turning violence against other races, especially in the powder keg that was Los Angeles at the time.
Souljah was allowed to kick knowledge to Whitley at the moment many people found out about the verdict, delivering an impactful speech about this being the time to really start thinking about the community we are building.
For those who remember, the sixth season of A Different World would be its last; there was always talk about what caused NBC to cancel the program, and on a 2015 episode of TV One's Unsung Hollywood, the cast revealed that NBC was not happy with the more controversial—read: political—episodes being created, primarily stemming from their season six L.A. riots two-parter. Prior to the episode airing, there was a real concern (especially from those in the black community in Los Angeles) about how a sitcom could appropriately depict such a troubling situation. Danny Bakewell, who was the director of the Brotherhood Crusade, opened up to the L.A. Times: "What I would be cautious about is whether the show deals with the rebellion or the substance that led to the rebellion.
"For instance," Bakewell continued, "to use a phrase like 'Free at last' that is so meaningful to black people, and use it in a way of trivializing it, may not be the best thing to do," he said. "For every person who exploited the situation, there were 10 others who were devastated by it. I'm not sure you can show that in two half-hours."
Truth be told, the sixth season wasn't as acclaimed as previous ones in the comedy department, but you have to give it up for A Different World not only taking on the riots, but also being vocal about the 1992 presidential election (which started with numerous talks about students registering to vote in "Honeymoon In L.A."). Oddly enough, in January 1992, Dwayne dropped this gem of a speech regarding racial bias that was not only hyper relevant then, but still resonates 25 years later.
Had A Different World gotten too woke for its own good? It's possible. This was a time where the voiceless had primetime television slots to be heard by the masses, and instead of towing company lines, Debbie Allen and the cast and crew of A Different World took the bull by the horns and found a way to educate while entertaining. "Honeymoon In L.A." was a necessary episode to make, and while it ultimately was the beginning of the end for this revolutionary sitcom, fighting the power was a must.