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  • Jan 22, 2013
One of the great, universally acknowledged truths of current popular culture is this: In no universe has Will Smith ever been considered edgy. Today, Smith is known as one of the biggest, most bankable movie stars on the planet, and to today's kids, that seems a dimension away from the Will Smith that was first introduced to the people of my own generation: Will Smith as the Fresh Prince, the famed rapper who burst onto the scene in the 80's and hit it big because his material - far from being the voice of social consciousness that other popular rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the immortal Public Enemy were - was relatable by people of all races. The Fresh Prince and his bandmate, DJ Jazzy Jeff, sang songs about girls being nothing but trouble and parents not understanding. 

In the late 80's, people started to notice that their saccharine family shows were off for some reason. They wondered what that reason was, since all those shows had good, powerful lessons to share in their exclusively white, middle-class universes. Could it be that, well…. NOT everyone in the United States was a middle-class white person? Was it possible that not everyone in the country was able to relate to their schmaltz? NBC decided that was exactly it, so they needed to diversify it up! They needed someone who was, well, you know, black. You know, edgy! And since the thought of asking Chuck D or Ice Cube to do their own sitcom was scary to them, they decided to make their headliner the cute and fluffy (not to mention damn near broke) Fresh Prince. 

That's a prominent viewpoint among the intelligentsia, at least, and I happen to believe there's a strong shot of truth in it. Martin Luther King once said it was the white moderates who posed the greatest roadblock to equality because they were more devoted to order than justice, and grabbing a soft family friendly guy like Will Smith to be the first rapper to star in a sitcom wasn't exactly a major system-shaker. But looking at it from the market standpoint, I'm hard-pressed to believe that NBC had much of a choice if they wanted the idea of African-American-led TV shows to fly. Had they tried to come along with a sitcom starring Too Short, the audiences might have rejected it straight offhand and black shows would be worse off than they would be now - and let's face it, the idea of black-led television casts is on life support as we speak. There are many sitcoms with black-led casts, but none of them are on a major network. And the idea of a black-led drama is still a pipe dream, unless the show revolves around the struggles of a still-disproportionately poor African-American community. 

The story of the show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, is told right in what is probably the most famous and catchy sitcom theme song ever. Will Smith, a fictional character who happens to have the same name as his actor, was raised in poverty in West Philadelphia. He got into a fight when he was 17 years old, and his mother, fearing for his life because of that and the other dangers of ghetto life, sent him out to live with his rich aunt and uncle: Phillip (James Avery) and Vivian Banks (Janet Hubert-Whitten for the first three seasons, Daphne Maxwell Reid), along with their kids: Hilary (Karyn Parsons), Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), and Ashley (Tatyana Ali). Smith is the kid who doesn't quite fit in with the prim and proper Banks family, but they grow to love him anyway. The family also has a butler, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), and a few seasons in, Phil and Vivian have a baby named Nicky (Ross Bagley, who also played Will Smith's own son in Independence Day). 

Phil is often seen as a hotheaded disciplinarian, but there's more to him than that. He was raised in a poor family and was an activist in the Civil Rights movement who was influenced heavily by Malcolm X; in one episode, he says he listened to Malcolm X speak and read every word he ever wrote. He was on the board of the NAACP and was given the Urban Spirit Award for his work in promoting civil rights. Now, as a rich family man, he still fights for those ideals, believing he can do as much damage from behind his desk (and later, on the bench as a judge). I bring this up for two reasons: First is a recent review from The Nostalgia Chick, who apparently didn't watch the series very closely and claimed he forgot how to be black. (For those not in the know, The Nostalgia Chick is white and her later episodes are taken to ill-advised attempts at social criticism.) Second, and more importantly, is because Phil is the only character on the show who is truly developed to this extent. 

Phil's wife is Vivian, whose personality undergoes a couple of radical shifts which are suspiciously convenient to the course of the series. (Read: She's a prop.) The other characters might as well be animated: Will tries to be the cool hip-hop guy, but most of the time it makes him look like a middle-schooler. Hilary is a valley girl, and Ashley is rebellious. Carlton is a prep school nerd. Now, it's odd that despite how animated Carlton and Ashley appear, they do tend to be probably the most realistic portrayals of rebel and nerd on TV. Ashley looks up to Will as an older brother, and she often goes against what her parents think is best for her. The show's producers realized that being rebellious doesn't necessarily entail biker guys and copious amounts of sex and drugs so much as plain old disobedience. This is seen best in one episode where Ashley drops out of her private school in secret so she can attend public school. Carlton, as the resident nerd, isn't stumbling around Urkel-like in big glasses. Carlton is a nerd by virtue of the fact that he studies hard, gets good grades, and has real ambition. He also has a famous nerd dance as a soundtrack to "It's Not Unusual," a song from his favorite singer, Tom Jones, which is now a popular meme. His favorite actor, however, is William Shatner. (Who guest stars in one episode as himself, fully game to poke fun of his identifying role as James Kirk.)

The first three seasons almost seem to revolve around Will's overactive hormones. Will sees girl, Will gotsta have girl! He tells a lie to get girl, makes a few short jokes at Carlton when Carlton tries to tell him it's wrong, and is eventually found out after some vapid Hilary-isms and a good, stern talking-to and grounding from Uncle Phil. The characters really don't change or mature very much over this time, but the episodes do have their moments; I was always fond of one silly episode where Will joined the poetry club to impress a girl, then wrote his own poetry which he made the mistake of attributing to a poet who didn't exist. In another episode, Phil and Vivian went on a trip and Carlton took advantage of it by renting the house to R&B group Bell Biv DeVoe for some extra spending money. Yeah, there were some very funny episodes, but they weren't anything special. The writing could also be so bland that when the actors were given anything with meat, you can bet they chewed the shit out of it - one episode in which Will and Carlton are arrested because of racial profiling pounds home this point. It's one of the great high points of those rocky first few years, and the actors - especially James Avery and Alfonso Ribeiro - almost appear to be emphasizing the power moments at the end. Will Smith has disparaged his own acting in those years, and his former castmates aren't in any hurry to defend him. Smith confessed to being so incompetent and nervous about missing cues that he mouthed his lines back to his castmates while they were saying them. Ali says she couldn't believe how bad he was. There was reportedly friction in the early days, and it culminated with Hubert-Whitten getting cast aside.

Obviously, they managed to work out all their differences on the set, and for the final three years of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's six-season run, it shows. The cast's chemistry is noticeably tighter, and the writing allows them to stretch more. The characters also start to mature. In he fourth season, Will romantically pursues a childhood love interest named Jackie (Tyra Banks). Hilary, the series cloudcuckoolander, gets her own daytime talk show. Will gets into a serious relationship with a girl named Lisa (Nia Long) in the fifth season. Carlton and Will in particular seem to show a lot of focus and ambition. A lot of the points and Lessons seen in the episodes tend to be more subtle and effective, instead of hitting with a schmaltzy aesop hammer. The one character who doesn't change very much is the butler, Geoffrey, who plays the family deadpan snarker for all time. Geoffrey is probably the funniest character on the show.

Despite the lightheartedness of the show, there are actually times when it tends to be truly dark. I'm talking about "Homer's Enemy" episode of The Simpsons dark. In one early episode, a girl Will is dating tells him she believes in virginity until marriage. What does Will do? Set up a fake marriage ceremony! Later, Hilary has a fiance named Trevor who is killed in a bungee jumping accident while proposing to Hilary. In another episode, Will tells Phil's political opponent to drop dead.... Which the opponent does. Most of the people who attend his funeral only show up to make sure he's dead, and when Will stands up to confront them for it and introduces himself as the guy that killed him, everyone cheers.

Other bits of humor tend to be constants - Phil losing his temper, Geoffrey's relentless jabs, and Will's friend Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff) literally getting thrown out of the Banks household are always in the series, but they never seem to get old.

These days, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one of the great relics of the 90's. The disconnect one can feel from now and the 90's while watching it - especially in the early episodes - is incredible. It's also incredible how far Will Smith has gotten, from once being a terrible sitcom actor to being an Oscar-nominated leading man in the movies. It's fun to watch any random episode of this show just to remind yourself of how different things were back in the 90's, what Will Smith used to be, and hell, the show is still funny as hell too, so there's certainly no shame in still catching and enjoying an old episode.

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More The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reviews
Quick Tip by . January 10, 2012
posted in Pass The Remote!
Fresh Prince is thankfully, another one of those nostalgic sitcoms that still retains its humorous punch after 20 odd years. The clashing personalities of Will (Will Smith) and Uncle Phil (James Avery) is the main reason why this show is so much fun. If you're having a bad day, the Fresh Prince will cheer you up.
Quick Tip by . January 10, 2011
posted in Pass The Remote!
The show that took Will Smith from Fresh Prince to Will Smith, action superstar. This is one of my favorite 90s sitcoms. I even loved the theme song which I'll throw into my DJ sets from time to time to a huge sing-a-long response from the crowd. If you watched this show growing up, I bet you can still recite the entire song! I enjoyed the different characters- the hilariously Republican preppy Carlton who couldn't dance to save his life and had NO game, the stuck up spoiled princess, Hilary, the …
Quick Tip by . November 22, 2010
posted in Pass The Remote!
There were probably more misses than hits overall, but "Fresh Prince" could be extremely funny.
review by . September 03, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
I've started watching Fresh Prince reruns on TV with my wife since she never got to experience this show when it first aired in the 1990s (she grew up in a developing country). While I liked the show as a kid, I'm loving it as an adult. One of the great things about the show is that it stays PG for the kids, but pushes close to the edge in subtle ways for adults. For example, the show has some goofy moments, which will appeal to kids. However, the show's funniest moments come from the more sophisticated …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is an American television sitcom that originally aired on NBC from September 10, 1990 to May 20, 1996. The show starred Will Smith as a street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia who is sent to live with his wealthy relatives in a Bel Air mansion. His lifestyle often clashed with that of his relatives there. 148 episodes were produced over six seasons.
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