“Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped-turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air”
These familiar rhymes pumping through your speakers let you know that Will Smith, aka The Fresh Prince, was going to show up on your TV alongside Uncle Phil and Carlton, and get up to some hijinks. Already a popular rapper, the NBC sitcom about a somewhat fictionalized version of Smith was a verifiable hit for the young performer.
The crux of the story is the life of a young man shipped from West Philly to live with his wealthy relatives in California. Will’s time in Philly is a rough, leading to a big fight on a basketball court which is immortalized in the opening credits. He moves to Bel-Air to live with his Aunt Vivian who is married to a highly successful lawyer. They have three kids, two of which are very much the stereotypical “rich kid” archetypes you normally find on TV in a standard “fish out of water” scenario.
That scenario is twisted by Will’s on screen background being close to what was considered to be stereotypically standard for young African American men on TV at the time, a lifestyle filled with the pitfalls his on screen mother is trying to help him avoid. Alternatively, Uncle Phil is successful lawyer with a wife who is a professor and kids getting a high level education. The show was as much about this family exposing Will to the idea that African Americans need not be pigeonholed into one lifestyle or set of choices as it was him reminding them that there was more to life than acquiring wealth and to not forget the realities many African American face. This dynamic was the most obvious in two relationships. First, the nature of a wealthy African American family having an African American butler, probably the first time anything like that had happened on American TV. And Joseph Marcell certainly took the sassy butler character to new levels. The second key relationship was between Will and his cousin Carlton who had zero real world experience and was almost oblivious to the racial tensions that existed all around him.
As a sitcom, The Fresh Prince transcended the genre through seemingly simple tweaks to the paradigm. Smith constantly spiked the camera and broke the fourth wall by speaking directly to the viewer. Acknowledging the audience is rarely used in sitcoms and has actually become more common in contemporary TV thanks to series like The Office, Parks and Rec, and Modern Family. The difference here is that some anonymous entity isn’t shooting a fictional documentary about the Banks family that may never see the light of day even in the context of the show. How much of this story came from Smith’s life also heightened the comedy. Jerry Seinfeld did something similar when he created a show based on aspects of his own life, not that they ever stated either series was supposed to be autobiographical to the best of my knowledge. Bringing in DJ Jazzy Jeff, his DJ from his rap career, as a character also added to that effect.
I never get tired of seeing Uncle Phil toss Jeff out the door.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran for six seasons from 1990 to 1996 and established Smith as a bankable actor with massive blockbusters like Independence Day and Bad Boys hitting theatres during that time. His more recent box office outings have done reasonably well but Smith has certainly not been the juggernaut he was in the 90s and early 2000s.
Despite his success as a rapper, Smith reputedly took the TV gig with NBC due to IRS issues that nearly bankrupted him. Simply, he was broke. More than a job, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air jump started his film and TV career as well as pushing his music career to greater heights. Smith has embraced his success with this series, frequently performing the theme song on stage whenever the opportunity presents itself. Will Smith has a music career that saw five albums released with DJ Jazzy Jeff and four on his own, and The Fresh Prince theme song might actually be the most recognizable track he ever created.
Just off-the-wall enough to distance itself from its 90s sitcom peers, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air remains a syndication mainstay that’s fun to come back to. Three seasons are currently available on Netflix but hopefully the rest will soon be added. It’s still a great watch.
Well, if you can get past the fashions of the first couple of seasons. Yikes.