ABC’s Emmy-winning hit Abbott Elementary, a sitcom about teachers in an underfunded, primarily Black public elementary school in Philadelphia, is taking the television world by storm. The network phenomenon has rave reviews that have translated into record-breaking ratings, a growing fandom of all ages, cultural prestige we usually reserve for premium cable shows, and the accolades to go with its near-instant success.
Abbott Elementary would have fit in with any of the “must-see TV” of the ’90s had the networks made sitcoms with predominantly Black casts at the time. NBC started with some we should remember. Just as Abbott has received well-deserved praise for socially conscious storylines and positive representation, another sitcom once strove for a similar mission: A Different World.
A spinoff of The Cosby Show, the primetime sitcom A Different World aired on NBC from 1987 to 1993, featuring a talented cast covering timeless issues and introducing Americans to the hidden jewel of HBCUs.
Centering on a group of undergraduate students attending the famed, albeit fictional, Hillman University, the series continues appealing to audiences more than 35 years later: unprecedented in its portrayal of the concerns of Black youth and how it painted an intergenerational portrait of Blackness inclusive of various identities.
The tremors of the cultural earthquake this show incited are still felt today. Furthermore, rather than succumbing to the notion that television had to be either apolitical or non-racial, A Different World proved that giving audiences a taste of the real world as seen through the eyes of this primarily Black cast was worth the watch.
It was also a pioneer of sorts: one of the first to address issues like apartheid, HIV, date rape, military occupation, homelessness, colorism and racism. The sitcom not only handled those storylines with grace but also retained its top ratings.
We fell in love with the nerdy but swagger math whiz Dwayne Wayne, bougie and opinionated Southern belle Whitley Gilbert, goofy ladies’ man and troublemaker Ronald “Ron” Johnson, and eccentric free spirit Freddie Brooks as they learned to navigate the Black college experience.
We must also name supporting characters witty dorm director Walter Oakes, sassy assistant director and divorcée Jaleesa Vinson Taylor and surly on-campus cafeteria owner Vernon Gaines, who helped complete director and producer Debbie Allen’s well-rounded vision of Black college life.
Essence reported on how Allen drew from her experiences at Howard University and frequent visits to HBCUs Spelman and Morehouse to transform the script from a show about students “who ‘happened to be Black’ at a school that ‘happened to be to an HBCU’ to a show about Black students at a Black college, dealing with real issues.”
A Different World highlighted Black student life with term papers and jerk professors, late-night study sessions and college parties, rush week and step competitions and gatherings at the favorite campus hangout, The Pit.
Darryl M. Bell, who played playboy-slash-musician Ron Johnson, told NBC News that A Different World left such an impression because it was able to deliver good jokes and drama and address controversial issues in a thought-provoking way in 30 minutes — whether with Jaleesa’s cheeky comebacks or Whitley’s sarcastic one-liners.
Most importantly, it held a mirror up to Black America in a way that was inspirational and profound, according to Kadeem Hardison, who played Dwayne Wayne.
“Anytime you see yourself reflected in a positive light, it does something to you,” Hardison told NBC News.
Black student enrollment at historically Black colleges and predominantly white institutions credits the show.
“From the debut of The Cosby Show in 1984 until the end of A Different World in 1993,” Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of HBCU Dillard University, told The New York Times, “American higher education grew by 16.8 percent.”
HBCUs also grew by 24.3%.
Over the last year, the appeal of Black life on TV has once again come full circle with Abbott Elementary, which shows the longevity and success of television creations that portray the lived experiences of Black people in America primarily through the scope of education.
A Different World writer and producer Yvette Lee Bowser told Vanity Fair, “Sometimes when I get interviewed, people ask me, ‘Well, how do you write or create such iconic shows or iconic characters?’ And the truth is, you don’t create iconic shows or iconic television or iconic characters. The audience decides what really lives with them, what really sticks with them.”
Writer, creator and executive producer Quinta Brunson has taken and run with that idea, playing overly idealistic second-grade teacher Janine Teagues in her critically acclaimed sitcom Abbott Elementary.
The 13-episode first season premiered in December 2021: a Philadelphia-based workplace comedy filmed as a mockumentary set in an inner-city, majority-Black elementary school.
The ensemble cast of characters, including veteran kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard; sixth-grade history teacher Jacob Hill; substitute turned full-time first-grade teacher Gregory Eddie; second-grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti and lovable, if inept, principal Ava Coleman, navigate the ups and downs of teaching in the American school system.
Like A Different World, Abbott Elementary hits close to home for so many because of its representation. For Brunson, it was essential that she accurately portrayed the setting of a Philadelphia public school, meaning most of the teachers, students and principal would be Black for authenticity.
“I feel that… the key to more diversity in television is not just sticking characters into a white world, but actually green-lighting the stories that naturally bring those people to the forefront,” Brunson told Entertainment Weekly.
The BIPOC community behind Abbott manages to walk the fine line between light-hearted comedy and the nitty-gritty of an underfunded, underresourced and broken education system designed to fail students, mostly of color.
Much like A Different World, Abbott is endearing without feeling the need to shy away from tough conversations on issues such as race, socio-economic struggles, inadequate school funding, teacher turnover, burnout and more problems that trouble educators.
“Welcome to the Philly public school system,” Barbara mockingly tells Gregory in the second season, “where you never have what you need.”
Blackness is the default in this West Philadelphia school community, from the school leader to the janitor. In addition, Brunson’s characters accurately show how passionate Black teachers are and the lengths they’ll go to for their students. A Different World inspired Black students to attend college, and Abbott Elementary, intentionally or not, inspires Black educators.
Having Black teachers in the classroom is linked to improved student outcomes, especially for Black students. For example, research shows having at least one Black teacher reduces a Black student’s likelihood of dropping out of school by up to 39%. In addition, Black students with access to two Black elementary school teachers are 32% more likely to attend college.
Abbott Elementary exists because a sixth grader grew up and never forgot how seen she felt by her teacher. Let that sink in.
— Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) February 19, 2022
While Abbott is a fictional comedy, it is a love letter to hard-working Black educators, beautifully highlighting their profound impact beyond just teaching; they wield power to change lives.
Abbott Elementary wouldn’t be where it is without the ’90s era of Black sitcoms. Now, we can look back at shows like A Different World, which allowed for truth and realness that had always been afforded to white-led sitcoms, and how it ultimately made room for Abbott Elementary to thrive today.