In late spring 1992, the producers of “A Different World” informed NBC that they were working on an episode about the Los Angeles riots. It did not go over well.
Susan Fales-Hill, the show’s head writer, recalls meeting with executives, who “strongly” dissuaded her and producer-director Debbie Allen from opening their sixthseason with an episode about the unrest that had recently devastated the city over six days. The network thought that people were just beginning to put the riots behind them. Fales-Hill recalls that, after some “tense” back-and-forth, Allen helped settle the debate by suggesting that leaders in the black community might speak out if it looked as though the network had “stifled” the show’s voice.
“A Different World,” which revolved around life at the fictional historically black Hillman College, had tackled a number of serious topics since its 1987 debut, including AIDS, colorism, domestic violence and the Gulf War. When the L.A. riots unfolded, the question wasn’t whether the show would address the uprising, it was how.
“A Different World” returned that fall with a two-part episode that found Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) caught in the middle of the riots during their honeymoon. The melee plays out in flashbacks, as the newlyweds work to get Hillman students registered to vote.
“We knew we were stepping in territory that needed to be addressed. That was part of the mission of our show,” said Allen, who directed the episode.
“A Different World” didn’t create the topical sitcom — Norman Lear blazed that trail in the 1970s — but the show was groundbreaking in its own way. “It was the voice of young black people,” said Allen, who joined the show in its second season. A graduate of Howard University, she is widely credited with elevating the “Cosby Show” spinoff into a socially conscious and authentic portrayal of student life at a historically black college. The riot episodes represent that legacy — and are a predecessor to TV shows tackling similar issues today.
The L.A. riots began April 29, 1992, exactly 25 years ago Saturday, following the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 60 people were killed in the ensuing chaos, which included looting and fires across the city. The riots soon served as a central plot point in the Season 7 opener of “L.A. Law,” and were referenced in “Knots Landing” and “Melrose Place.”
Even on the dramedy “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” Neil Patrick Harris’s teen doctor struggled to understand the destruction while treating injured bystanders. Will Smith reluctantly accompanied his affluent aunt and uncle to help clean up their riot-torn former neighborhood on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” “In Living Color” offered an irreverent PSA-style sketch that featured David Alan Grier as King and Jim Carrey as Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who was brutally attacked by black assailants during the riots. (“Stay in your car!” the two advised in unison.)
The New York Times said the trend was part of “the politicizing of TV’s prime-time comedy,” along with “Murphy Brown” reacting to Vice President Dan Quayle’s criticism of the protagonist’s single motherhood.
Today, amid the Black Lives Matter movement, TV shows including Fox’s “Shots Fired” and ABC’s “Blackish” have explored police violence, with mixed results. As in 1992, shows run the risk of exploiting painful events for ratings (or in contemporary metrics, social media buzz).
“A Different World’s” Hillman was located in Virginia, but it wasn’t a stretch for the students to reflect on the uprising and the decades of racial tension that preceded it. That larger theme was all but lost on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“At first, it looks like there’s going to be a riot. It ends up with a rap song, and one of our little white girls going over to ask a black kid to dance,” producer Aaron Spelling told The Washington Post at the time.
“A Different World” was on hiatus when the riots began. Fales-Hill remembers two of the show’s writers — Gina Prince and Reggie Rock Bythewood — calling her, shocked, after the King verdict came down. (The couple, who later married, created “Shots Fired.”). “I remember hanging up and thinking, ‘There’s going to be a riot,’” Fales-Hill said.
Guy, one half of the show’s fan-favorite couple, was in Charleston, S.C., filming the Alex Haley miniseries “Queen.”
“I remember feeling so isolated and alone,” she said. Guy had grown used to discussing difficult topics on the set of “A Different World,” where Allen encouraged collaboration between writers and actors.
The show went into pre-production shortly after the riots ended. “The mood was quite somber,” Fales-Hill said, noting that much of the cast and crew had been young children during the 1965 Watts riots.
“We had this sinking feeling of history repeating itself,” she said. “It caused us all this profound thinking of ‘How has our country progressed — or not? And did anything that our parents fought for really bear fruit?’ ”
The writers and actors thought the show had a responsibility to its audience to examine the unrest. “They looked to us to be kind of the town square, where difficult topics were opened up that then caused ripple discussions and, hopefully, some kind of healing,” Fales-Hill said.
Even after Allen and Fales-Hill successfully lobbied NBC for the episode, the battles with the network weren’t over.
One of the hardest sells was a guest appearance by Sister Souljah, who had been publicly denounced by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton for comments she made in a Washington Post interview following the riots. “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” the activist, author and MC had said. She was making the point — albeit provocatively — that some black Los Angeles residents believed the city had long ignored issues plaguing their communities.
Ultimately, she did appear in the episode — as a woman shopping in the same store as Whitley when the King verdict is announced. “How can they acquit them?” Whitley asks. “It was on tape. We all saw it.”
“Girl, please,” Sister Souljah tells Whitley. “They can beat us, kill us, do whatever they want to do and get off, just like they always have.” When Whitley responds that “we still have the Constitution to protect us,” Sister Souljah reminds her that “when that piece of paper was written, African Americans in this country were slaves.”
Roseanne Barr and her then-husband Tom Arnold also appeared, as a pair of looters. Gilbert Gottfried played a police officer, who warily pulls over Dwayne — separated from Whitley after a spat — after the verdict is announced. “Put your hands on the roof of the car,” Gottfried says. Dwayne, who had been driving a convertible, responds: “Where’s the roof?”
Looking back, Fales-Hill said that although the episode was good, she doesn’t think it holds up as one of the show’s best. She also suspects it might be part of the reason the show ended after Season 6.
“It’s a really tough topic to deal with in a comedy,” she said.
But Guy said the riot episode is one she hears about often, in addition to episodes about apartheid in South Africa, date rape and, of course, the Season 5 finale, which finds Whitley leaving poor Byron Douglas III (Joe Morton) at the altar to marry Dwayne, her true love.
The riot episode hit home for Guy and her co-stars, some of whom had been harassed by police in Los Angeles.
“That subject — not just the riots, but why the riots broke out — was very real for us,” Guy said. “I was proud that we were able to address issues . . . that were affecting young people all over the country, and that are now still affecting us.”
“I also get, all the time, that people went to school because of that show,” Guy added.“That really moves me.”