High HBCU Hopes for BET’s ‘The Quad’

In search for ‘A Different World,’ we can only pray for the best for the HBCU entry into Black Hollywood’s renaissance era.

In search for ‘A Different World,’ we can only pray for the best for the HBCU entry into Black Hollywood’s renaissance era.

To be fair, ‘A Different World’ was that good, and that ahead of its time. The intimate glimpse of HBCU did something no other black sitcom before it, even more than the ‘Cosby Show’ ever came close to doing. It analyzed black people and black institutional culture with humor and drama, without wading waist-deep into stereotypical depictions for laughs or introspection.

Since ‘A Different World’ ran its series finale in 1993, HBCU advocates have been looking for a replacement ever since. It ventured a few times into reality television with College Hill and ‘Bama State Style,’ but never really captured the magnetism and authenticity of Hillman College and its appeal to diverse audiences. But in the 23 years since, and particularly in the last five years, Hollywood has embraced the notion that black folks like to see people who look like us on television, and thanks to Mara Brock Akil, Chris Rock, Shonda Rhimes and others, we’re seeing an avalanche of scripted black content with racial, emotional and intellectual depth.

But if the trailer for BET’s ‘The Quad’ is to be believed, it’s scripted drama on life and times at fictitious Georgia A&M University will have to surprise us with those things. It will have a nod to its ‘A Different World’ lineage with an appearance from Jasmine Guy, and it will have what appears to be the obligatory white student just in the way ‘A Different World’ tried it with Marisa Tomei back in the day.

It will have some prevalent themes that are legitimately embedded within HBCU culture; the untouchable nature of campus mainstays like band directors and football coaches, dissension between board members and new presidents, and of course, students behaving badly.

Conflict and bad behavior are central to basic themes of drama. But when considering that Florida A&M University alumnus Rob Hardy is a creator and executive producer of the project, and, according to the Rattler Rumor Mill, may have been on the real-life receiving end of one of the trailer’s most revealing lines of dialog (“I have to make sure she fails,”) it is no great shock that the most tantalizing elements of the inaugural season’s sneak preview include band hazing and turmoil with a new president imported from an Ivy League school.

The creators and the network have to be clear that any typical drama that any other typical show about black college life puts a heavier burden on ‘The Quad’ because that kind of drama plays out for HBCUs in real life almost every day. Too many campuses get caught in headlines for students being murdered, money being stolen, presidents being fired or forced to resign for reasons unknown to the general public, and the notion that all our constituents care about is the marching band, football games and shenanigans.

What made ‘A Different World’ so good, we can only hope, will be the stuff that ‘The Quad’ is made of; slick, fleeting but meaningful depictions of how the HBCU breeds young black intellect on issues like race relations, apartheid, politics, poverty, class warfare, colorism, crime and urban development. These were all carefully embedded issues in Hillman students’ efforts to find and define self, community, purpose, profession and love — the things that make for good, distracting television.

But more than that, and more than ‘A Different World,’ ‘The Quad’ has an even heavier burden. To tell the story of the life of the HBCU itself, not through force fed affirmations about black colleges without the evidence (“HBCU or Ivy, excellence is excellence”). ‘The Quad’ can be the platform to expose truths about HBCU culture unknown to our most passionate stakeholders. It will have 30–60 minutes every week to talk about the HBCU battles against federal and state politics moving in to close the most vulnerable of our institutions.

It can freely examine the economics of why marching band and football culture remain so central to the campus experience, but have not yet reaped the millions of dollars to match their revenue potential. Will we see what dilapidated campuses look like? Will we be made to understand the issues of access and affordability for students attending GAMU, and how on a year-to-year basis, schools like it hang in the balance as a result?

Will we hear dialog about accreditation, federal student aid changes, deferred maintenance, analytics in student engagement? Will the script call for episodes on researchers denied grant funding because of their black-sounding name or their HBCU being listed on the application?

Will we be entertained or educated? Or can BET pull off the rare double that is no longer demanded in black-themed programming, but should be an essential point for ‘The Quad’ and all it hopes to represent? It’s not like BET is foreign to the concept — the network pulled it off with shows like ‘Girlfriends’ and ‘Being Mary Jane.’

But this isn’t a look into the lives and thoughts of black women, this is a look into the lifeline of a community. And unless the show has voice and writers with real-life experience with our beautiful four-lettered culture, viewers will see right through it and move right past it, before it can have a chance to flourish.