“How I Became The Prince Of A Town Called Bel Air” (#24)

“You’re moving with your auntie and your uncle in Bel-Air.”

Listen to When We Were Young here.

In a lot of ways, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air feels like an older show than it is, because I associate it with syndication. I don’t recall ever stumbling across it on primetime. I don’t remember being aware of it as a show that was still “on.” It wasn’t on my radar. I’m not even sure when I caught it… as a young teenager, maybe? For me, it was the kind of show I’d watch when there was nothing else on.

 In revisiting it, I went in with the same attitude, expecting a bland sitcom that would have hit-or-miss funny moments, Will Smith’s charisma, and not much else. I came away surprised by the strength of the supporting cast, the insights of its writers and producers, and the daring of the issues it addressed.
A handful of episodes standout in a “very special episode” kind of way, but they’re done with finesse and avoid the cheese factor that usually accompanies sitcoms when they broach a serious subject. When Saved By The Bell tackled caffeine pill addiction, it became the show’s mocking calling card. The equivalent Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air episode, “Just Say Yo,” isn’t perfect, but it isn’t pat, either. I remember the “shocking” moment when Full House tackled the taboo topic of teen smoking through the Gina character. The episode made it feel as if Gina had pulled a gun on Stephanie. Ultimately, sitcoms rarely let their protagonists do anything truly “naughty;” at best, it’s the mischievous new friend who misbehaves in order to teach us a moral lesson. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air is unique among sitcoms for not always sweeping controversy under the rug by episode’s end. There are hugs and lessons, but there are also lingering questions that go unresolved.A few exemplary episodes of the show deal explicitly with hot button issues like racial profiling, while others that speak to less touted aspects of black American life. “Mistaken Identity” is a brilliant episode of television, hilarious and heartbreaking. It concludes with a gut-punch moment, as Carlton tries to make sense of his arrest in a way that doesn’t have to do with his race. Ultimately, Will and Uncle Phil know better, and the episode ends with the ominous sense that Carlton is going to have to learn this lesson again and again before it truly sinks in.

Another standout is Season Four’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse,” in which Will’s father returns to the picture just long enough to get his hopes up, then promptly bails on the plans they’ve made. This is a plot we’ve seen on TV and in movies often — the deadbeat biological parent stepping in to shake things up, only to leave their offspring crushed by disappointment. This episode culminates in a raw, explosive monologue from Will that showcases some of the star’s best acting (ever). The episode both follows sitcom formula and, ultimately, defies it. The same story could be — and has been — told about a white father and a white child, but The Fresh Prince knows which nuances make it specific to Will’s experience, and that specificity pays off.

Looking back, it’s surprising that The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air tackles race head-on so often. (I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s how the show is remembered by most.) Will Smith is about a raceless as a major movie star can be — he has generally avoided roles that explicitly call for African-American actors, except when he’s playing a real-life person (as in Ali, The Pursuit Of Happyness, and Concussion). Even in these films, race is more of a background issue than it is in The Fresh Prince.
In most ways, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air adheres to sitcom formulas (including a lot of pretty terrible clips episodes). Few, if any, of its storylines couldn’t be done on a sitcom with a primarily Caucasian cast (though I shudder to think of a white sitcom attempting a story like Carlton’s visit to Compton in “72 Hours”). But so many episodes resonate more because of the insight the writers and actors bring to how these comedic setups reflect racial issues across the spectrum. Will and Carlton going to jail for a false-alarm car theft could happen on any show, but the concluding moments, as Carlton grapples with new realizations about racial injustice, have the power they do because they reveal such a dark truth about racism in America. Most sitcoms would laugh it off anyway. The Fresh Prince doesn’t.
There are also episodes like “Mud Is Thicker Than Blood” which deal with racial issues between African-American characters. The basic setup — Will and Carlton rush a fraternity, and Carlton is too nerdy to get a bid — is, again, something you’d find on any sitcom. But the way it plays out is singular to these characters and this experience. At its best, The Fresh Prince manages to satisfy the punchline quotient required of a sitcom and shed a surprising light on underdiscussed social issues. The show’s class contrast is fairly jokey — the Banks family is absurdly wealthy, and Will’s “rough” upbringing tends to gloss over some harsher points — but it is satisfying to see so many different black characters dealing with black issues in different ways. As was the creators’ mantra, The Fresh Prince says there’s no right or wrong way to be black. It backs that up constantly, showing how each character responds to challenges in their own specific way.
Though only a handful of episodes take deep dives into racial issues, this is the feature that sets The Fresh Prince apart from other cheesy 90s sitcoms. It’s amazing — and a little disheartening — that every issue the show tackles feels just as fresh today (if not moreso). Though there are plenty of mediocre moments, overall The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air boasts hilarious and heartfelt performances, strong writing, and clever fourth-wall-breaking gags, plus a few episodes per season that go above and beyond what a 90s sitcom is expected to.


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