THIS WEEK'S episode of "A Different World" has a plot that's a bit weightier than the usual lighter-than-air fluff that passes for stories on most half-hour sitcoms.
"We wanted to do something on inter-racial violence," the show's co-executive producer, Susan Fales, said over the phone from Los Angeles. "So we came up with this script that was written by Gary Miller, our supervising producer."
In this episode of the NBC show, which will air Thursday night at 8:30 on Channel 2 (WMAR), regular characters Dwayne and Ron go to a football game at a nearby school that's mainly white and end up in a fight in the stadium parking lot. They are thrown into detention with three white students who were on the other side.
"We wanted a situation that would set up a dialogue on the issue," Fales said of the discussion that ensues among the students. "We use a Rashomon-type device to show how the two sides have different versions of what happened in the fight.
"What we hope is that seeing this will set up a dialogue within the audience, to get people on both sides to look at themselves. They might identify with one of the characters and recognize some of the prejudices they carry."
Fales said that she feels a special responsibility to do shows like this on "A Different World."
"We have a large youth audience. Face it, we are America's baby sitters," she said. "We want to reach them with messages like this.
"When we did a show last year on AIDS, you should have seen the letters we got, people saying they always assumed it was
something that only happened to someone else until they saw our show. So I think a TV show can make a difference."
* The PBS series "Travels" kicks off its third season tonight with the first of a two-part series on a journey across America.
But "America with the Top Down" doesn't take the standard pioneer east-to-west trek. Instead, it travels right down the Midwest, from Canada to Mexico via the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, almost in the center of the United States.
And it's all done in a beautiful, bright red,1960 Ford Sunliner convertible. "America with the Top Down" begins at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.
Your tour guides are Alan Schroeder, who was born into a Mennonite family in Kansas and now teaches communications at Ithaca College in New York, and Jimmy Tingle, a stand-up comedian from Boston.
They stop at oddities -- Stonehenge re-created in junked autos -- and tourist sites -- Mount Rushmore, which is something of an oddity in its own right. They visit Indians and Irish dancers. They pick up an occasional passenger, a born-again astronaut who walked on the moon, a cowboy poet and philosopher in Texas.
They find an all-black community founded by freed slaves in Kansas, and Larry McMurtry's hometown that inspired "The Last Picture Show" in Texas. And then, with the top down and the sun shining and the miles rolling by, they discuss what they have seen, Schroeder's soul-searching insight counterbalanced by Tingle's hard-edged humor.
Though "America with the Top Down" could have used a bit of explanatory self-revelation -- Why did these two people, who had never met, get together for this journey? Where was the camera and crew? How much stuff was staged? -- it paints a portrait of diversity that exists in a part of the country usually depicted as virtually monochromatic.
* "Travels" is appropriate subject matter for this space as I am about to be moving on myself. Six weeks shy of 14 years after my first column on television appeared, this one is my last.
I'll still be around this newspaper, but I've got a new beat, something loosely defined as ideas. I'll be writing about the trends, fads, social and cultural currents that run through our daily lives, trying to reveal them, define them and occasionally explain their presence.
Obviously, television is an important source and receptor of those currents, so it's certain that I will write again about this medium. But no longer will I try to be a guidepost to the vast wasteland that so often proves to be surprisingly fertile.
Thanks for paying attention