Archiving Blackness: The DVD and Cultural Memory
Flipping through the after-holiday sales papers and seeing Season 7 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for $12.99 at Target and Season 3 of Community for $19.99 at Best Buy, the TV show on DVD is a decidedly ubiquitous part of television culture. But I am reminded that the availability of TV on DVD works as an archive. Certainly, the shows available on DVD speak to the popularity of the series – we would be astounded if Friends or Seinfeld were unavailable on DVD. But as I have been conducting research on black-cast sitcoms, I am reminded how the DVD not only works as an archive but also a creator of collective memory.
Certainly, networks and netlets contribute to our collective memory through re-runs (which also speaks to particular ideals about taste cultures) and the selection of series available through those channels, but the DVD works as a tangible, on-demand archive that allows one to relive a series on demand. So, when we think about the black-cast series, what is available and what might that say about the archive? Why is the complete series of The Cosby Show available when only the first season of A Different World is available? Certainly, as Janet Staiger has argued, The Cosby Show was the last blockbuster television series, but A Different World provides a quite interesting case study.
The series ran from 1987 – 1993 on NBC and was created as a star vehicle for Lisa Bonet’s Denise Huxtable as she went off to the fictional Hillman College. In its first season, the show was an extension of The Cosby Show – a series that has often been criticized for the ways in which it failed to deal with racial issues, particularly in the 1980s, a time when the Reagan administration created policies that disproportionately had a negative impact on the black lower classes. The first season of A Different World is a vastly different series than the one it became in subsequent seasons, which is why it remains queer that the DVD archive only remembers the first season.
The second season of A Different World underwent a complete overhaul (although the show was No. 2 in the Nielsens overall and in black households), with Debbie Allen transforming the series “from a bland Cosby spinoff into a lively, socially responsible, ensemble situation comedy” according to the Hollywood Reporter. It is beginning in the second season, when the series breaks from its squeaky-clean Cosby roots that it really begins to resonate with black viewership, particularly black members of Generation X.
My best friend Ayanna looked to A Different World to provide instruction on identity development. While speaking in “proper” English was not the lesson Ayanna took from the show, she did gain a sense of the possibility of higher education for black students. Ayanna recalls, “It was probably the first time I had seen… a show that had what I would consider peers, or close to peers, who were predominantly African American, that were seeking education who I had similar things in common with.” Perhaps even more importantly, Ayanna draws a distinction between the import of a text like The Cosby Show and its depiction of an intact black family and the collegiate space carved out in A Different World. She remembers, “while The Cosby Show was cool, it was more about family, I just remember A Different World sticking out for me and it actually being a show that I could kinda grow up with as I was becoming a young person seeing how they evolved.”
Certainly, A Different World remained popular for black viewers throughout its run and can frequently be seen in reruns on WE, TVOne, and a host of other cable networks, but if we use the DVD as a kind of archive to have and to hold and to watch our favorite TV classics (however one defines that term) on demand, why does A Different World get erased from the collective memory that is the DVD archive? Or better yet, why does A Different World get remembered for a season of the show that is so unlike the rest of the series?
I could make the argument that black-cast sitcoms I loved from the 1980s are unavailable on DVD like He’s the Mayor (1986) or the woefully ahead-of-its-time Frank’s Place (1987), but these had a far lesser cultural impact in their cultural moments. But A Different World was a series that was only outside the Nielsen Top 5 for the last year of its run. Rather, there seems to be something else afoot with A Different World particularly given that other Carsey-Werner hits of the era, Roseanne and The Cosby Show, are widely available through this archive (as well as fixtures on the syndicated circuit of TVLand, WE, Oxygen, and other cable networks).
What I argue is afoot is that A Different World engages with a different kind of blackness than other black-cast shows of the era like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), which also aired on NBC and whose complete series is available via the DVD archive in the United States. Rather, in its second season (and until the end of its run), A Different World becomes a show that engages with issues that affect and effect black communities of the late 1980s and early 1990s like HIV/AIDs, Reaganomics, intra-race racism, the ongoing legacies of racist stereotypes, like the “mammy” and black people owning slaves. These issues are a far cry from the issues Will and Carlton face on The Fresh Prince or from the general antics of J. J. Evans on Good Times or Fred and Lamont Sanford on Sanford and Son. I am attempting to refrain from making a value judgment about Good Times, Sanford and Son, or The Fresh Prince, because they all have their place within the black television canon. However, when those shows that regularly depict black people in purely comedic light become the only way in which the DVD archive remembers blackness, it becomes highly problematic.
Beller, Miles. “A Different World.” The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 21 September 1989