Cast: Will Smith, James Avery, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Janet Hubert, Daphne Maxwell Reid, Tatyana M Ali, Joseph Marcell
Created by: Andy Borowitz and Susan Borowitz
Set in the ritzy residential enclave that LA’s most privileged families call home, NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) was not just another sitcom. Conceptualised by Quincy Jones and Benny Medina, this 90s TV show ran for six seasons and 148 episodes (you can see all of them Amazon Prime Video). It is still remembered by fans for its sharp comic writing that often wove in racial undertones that expressed the profiling of African-Americans by some, including those in law enforcement. This subtle yet distinct message often trickled through, despite being peripheral to the plot and elevated the show from the rest and also accorded it a racially-sensitive status. It’s also the show that made Will Smith a household name.
TFPOB revolves around Will (Will Smith), a teen from West Philadelphia who’s sent by his mother to live with his aunt Viv (Janet Hubert and later, Daphne Maxwell Reid) and uncle Phil (the late James Avery) in LA’s tony neighbourhood of Bel-Air. He also shares his new palatial residence with his cousins Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), Hillary (Karyn Parsons) and Ashley Banks (Tatyana M Ali). Born and raised in the hood, Will’s experience of being tossed into the lap of privilege and abundance furnishes various hilarious encounters as he bluntly critiques the excessive lifestyle that his cousins have grown to regard and relish. The show also features Banks’ butler-in-residence Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), an almost caricature of a Victorian figure who is known to lace his one-liners with a tinge of poker-faced sarcasm. “What is the precise nature of this nervous disorder?” he enquires on noticing Will and Ashley vogue-ing to pop music.
Another recurring figure in the show is Will’s friend and musician Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff) who pops in intermittently only to be tossed out of the house by Uncle Phil. The sight of Jazz flying through the screen after he had been physically evacuated by Uncle Phill went on to mark his trademark exit in every episode that he featured in.
The show’s highlights include the nonstop banter between Will and Carlton. The hilarious quips and insults that they aim at each other ensure the material lands on point with the audience. Rebiero’s comic genius in TFPOB was unrestrained and the actor went on to carve a remarkable career, with milestones including winning Dancing with the Stars (2014) and hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos, a role that he’s held for the last five years.
Smith, now a Hollywood veteran, can be seen as a lanky teen struggling to find his bearings here. But it was this show that helped him master his moves in front of the camera and also propelled him to be seen as a fashion icon (his sneaker collection in the show became a rage). Speaking of fashion trends, the elitist Hillary has to be among TV’s earliest influencers and her designer outfits surely gave fashion goals to teenage girls who’d scan her various dresses and shoes in every episode.
Essentially a family comedy, like many from the time, the show did abide by the format of occasionally packing a moral or two that parents would want their kids at home to hopefully pick up. But here, the father-figure Uncle Phil isn’t the traditional patriarch who always has the final word. While an assertive disciplinarian, he’s often trounced by Will or other characters who would routinely deflate his arguments with one-liners and mock his almost-English reserve.
Above all, TFPOB scores for being a socially significant show that closely depicts the experience of the limited affluent African American families in the 1990s. The Banks were an endearing lot who scoped through the unique lens afforded to them by their position of privilege and yet, were relatable as they held their own in every circumstance. That it was a comedy and a masterful one at that, was a suitable distraction. But there’s an embedded insinuation about the struggle of those who’re pulled up merely for their skin colour, and how one’s celebrated position in society can do little to alter this. This touched a necessary nerve with an America grappling with discrimination and hopeful for an inclusive future. And this is also what will ensure the show remains relevant and relatable to this day.
Recommendations in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video