The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990)

Fresh and innovative as a 90’s-iconic TV sitcom with richly-developed characters, hilarious situational comedy, precocious social-commentary on important black cultural topics/themes, and star-making rapper-turned-actor: Will Smith._8.7/10.

Plot Synopsis: Will Smith plays himself in this NBC sitcom where fictional Will’s mom sends him away from his rough Philadelphia neighborhood to live with wealthy Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian in Bel-Air. Will often has fun at the expense of stuck-up cousins Carlton and Hilary.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

S1 – 7.1/10 / S2 – 9.3/10 / S3 – 8.7/10 / S4 – 9.2/10 / S5 – 7.3/10 / S6 – 8.5/10

CLC’s Best Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Episodes: 1. Will Goes A Courtin’, 2. Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse, 3. Day Damn One, 4. Whoops, There It Is!, 5. Not, I Barbecue, 6. Courting Disaster, 7. Robbing The Banks, 8. Sleepless In Bel-Air, 9. P.S. I Love You.., 10. Cased Up, 11. The Butler Did It, 12. Fresh Prince: The Movie, 13. You Bet Your Life, 14. My Brother’s Keeper, 15. Just Say Yo, 16. Winner Takes Off, 17. Banks Shot, 18. Lucky Charm, 19. Eye Tooth, 20. I Done

Review

Bel Air, California; 1990

A Young Man From Philadeplphia Crowned ‘The Fresh Prince’ Pulls Up To His Uncle’s Mansion – And Nothing Was The Same

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

Bel Air, California; 1990. A young man from Philadelphia nicknaming himself ‘The Fresh Prince’ pulls up to the White House-looking mansion of his Uncle Phil and starts knocking to the tune of Soul II Soul’s ‘Back To Life’. A sarcastic butler named Geoffrey opens the door, and nothing was the same. One of the most iconic pieces of ’90’s pop culture, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ deserves its place amongst the greats of sitcoms – reimaging and innovating the comparatively-white and stock subgenre into a culturally-rich and diverse one – with endless laughs and production-value. Fresh and tremendously innovative with richly-developed characters, hilarious situational comedy, intricacy writing-in social commentary on important cultural topics/themes, & a star-making charismatic lead in Will Smith, it is easy to see why this series is so universally beloved and talked about even to this day ~30 years later – and why it catapulted Will Smith into superstardom becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities. The Fresh Prince has taken L.A.

The Characters & Cast

Lifetime Performances By Every Member Of The (Black Representation-Innovative) Banks Family – And A Surprise Patriarch: Will Smith

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

First, the characters. The balance of characters is simply sublime, from warm father-figure power-lawyer Uncle Phil to strong black woman Aunt Vivian to preppy and odd nerd Carlton to spoiled rich-kid/daddy’s girl Hillary to (not-so) innocent young Ashley to wise-cracking sarcastic butler Geoffrey to comic relief best friend Jazz to its titular royalty-star. One of the series’ biggest hallmarks and importances is how it showed the full gamut of black experiences at the time (as well as upper-class ones that were tremendously-important representationally), blending together all walks of life both in the have’s by way of the fabulously wealthy (aptly-named) Banks, and have-not’s in Smith’s on canvas. The performances are absolutely sensational – each actor and actress owns their role magnificently and parlays it into a lifetime/career character – especially James Avery as perhaps the ultimate TV father (R.I.P. Uncle Phil), Karyn Parsons’ breathtakingly-gorgeous and perfectly-authentic daddy’s girl/spoiled Bel-Air socialite princess Hillary, and Alfonso Ribiero’s Carlton – perhaps THE best performance and character in the whole show (yes, even over Will in CLC’s vote) and just as nuanced, hilarious, and once-in-a-lifetime special as his now world-famous Carlton Dance. These are all in conjunction with the series’ man of the hour, whom would take Hollywood by storm and become one of its biggest stars: Will Smith.

The Man Of The Hour

A Lead That Changed The Trajectory Of Hollywood, Launching A Rapper With No TV Experience To Stardom – Easy To See Why

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The man of the hour and whom it is impossible not to instantly-get how he skyrocketed into one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars after this TV show: Will Smith. The Fresh Prince is absolutely sensational, bringing a suave demeanor, endless charm, efficacious comedy, and urban experience to the screen that was truly groundbreaking – especially in the context of the fact that he had no prior acting experience. The pop cultural influence must’ve sold like hot-cakes, being that Smith was already a famous Grammy-winning rap star before being called in by exec producers Quincy Jones and Barry Medina (whose life-story is that of Will’s and the premise of the series itself), only taking the role out of lifestyle-debt but ending up using it as a springboard canvas into the stratosphere of media recognition. FPOBA is so special in that regard, we see a rough first-time actor mature into a top-tier one right before our very eyes – going from goofball and often-poorly acted S1 antics to the All-Time legendary pedigree scenes in Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse and Just Say Yo. The characters are masterfully, richly-developed over the six 23-episode seasons going through a multitude of different character and coming-of-age/self-revelation arcs and whose sheer difference in black representation unlike anything else before it alone justifies its status as one of the culture’s most groundbreaking TV wins – while still wildly-fun for other cultures with one of the best rewatch values I’ve seen, probably 2nd to NBC’s The Office.

The Comedy

One Of The Funniest TV Series To-Date – Giving Phenomenal Representation To The Black Community’s Entertainment Prowess

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

The situational comedy is absolutely top-notch. Truly hilarious plots like dual-legal stories of cases, street-kids in prep schools, preppy-kids trying to play basketball, butlers winning the lottery and telling off their employers, pool-hall hustlings, chaotically renting-a-house for music videos, and even a blooper episode are explored with never-a-dull moment and very few – if any – skippable episodes; downright impressive achievement for any sitcom. The cameos by ’90’s Hollywood/Music/Athlete/Overall-Celebrity A-listers also add to this landscape of comedy and entertainment, from William Shatner to Queen Latifah to Don Cheadle to Bo Jackson to Heavy D to Quincy Jones to Boyz II Men to Al B. Sure to Donald Trump to Hugh Hefner to Jay Leno to Ken Griffey Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Don Cornelius to Chris Rock to Isiah Thomas to Evander Holyfield to Bell Biv Devoe to Sherman Hemsley to Tom jones to Oprah Winfrey. FPOBA is easily one of – if not the funniest sitcom of All-Time and consistently delivers in innovative, inventive comedic writing.

The Social Commentary

Loads Of Precocious Writing On Vital Themes & Topics – From Police Brutality To Drug-Abuse To Father-Absence To Class Differences

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

The social commentary on important themes/cultural topics. Beyond all the comedy though, there is so emotional weight and levity to be had as well – a brilliant addition by the screenwriters to give the series some substance too. Tackling incredibly discussion-worthy and even at-times controversial society points like absent fathers, drug abuse, gold-digging, suicidal tendencies, teen pregnancy, police-racism/brutality, class differences, gun control, gender stereotypes, and the nature of the entertainment industry is easily one of the series’ biggest positives and ballsy decisions not always seen or taken-on in shows and sitcoms for worry it will turn off disagreeing viewers, but here tackled with such skill and balance it doesn’t turn you off as too-political or preachy – even if you don’t agree. At times, there are scenes that even coalesce or change genres to drama or Greek tragedy like the All-Time great and still-talked-about diatribe by Will against his father for leaving him and Carlton in the hospital for drugs and Will after being shot it seriously invokes thought or emotion at. Sensational.

Flaws

A Shaky, Borderline-Bad S1, Infamous Aunt Viv Switch, Late Complacency, & ~Anticlimactic S6 Finale Arc For The Prince

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

Flaws in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air include a shaky, borderline-bad start in the tremendously-uneven and poorly-acted Season 1 (mostly by Smith whom you can sense his novelty to acting) before it finally gets its legs towards the end of S1 into the magnificent S2. Beyond that, there are a slew of continuity errors and plot-holes from S3-onward – by selectively-lazy writing that does start to decline or even just a forgetting of the characters. The infamous Aunt Viv switch in S4 makes makes for a bad new version in Daphne Maxwell-Reid, Hubert being a 10x better actress and strong black woman in the series whom was amongst its greatest pros early-on (before she started acting erratically, forced the series into a ham-fisted S3 pregnancy arc, and foremost got into a heated rivalry with Will Smith that obviously wrote her own ticket out.), copout of the Fresh Prince of Philadelphia angle a disappointment, and entire S5 buildup to Will’s marriage only to be thrown away without explanation one of the most bizarre plot choices ever. Going hand-in-hand, while the finale gives fantastic character-development and send-offs to each of its other characters, Will’s final arc is pretty ~anticlimactic – S5’s marriage arc or a college-graduation arc would’ve been a far better royal-goodbye the Prince deserved, highlighting his growth instead of being treated like a pauper’s afterthought by the writing room.

A TV Sitcom That Changed Everything

A Fresh And Innovative ’90’s-Benchmark With Richly-Developed Characters, A1-Comedy, Vivid Social Commentary, & Star-Made Lead

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

Overall, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a fresh and innovative 90’s-iconic sitcom with richly-developed characters, hilarious situational comedy, intricacy writing-in social commentary on important cultural topics/themes, & a star-making charismatic lead in Will Smith that holds a special place in the hearts of ’90’s kids and comedic history books. Its legacy cannot be understated – before it, the rap culture and idea of MC’s/music-stars on TV and pop media was a far dream, now culminating in everything from Boyz N The Hood to Atlanta to HBO’s Insecure to endless rap biopics like Notorious, Straight Outta Compton, & All Eyez On Me. It showed the black experience in a representationally-fresh way unlike anything before it, while bravely and capably tackling/articulating controversial yet important topics in a way all cultures could understand and appreciate. I would argue it also skyrocketed the profile and screen-iconography of Hollywood even further, and certainly did so for its star-made lead. Live-on, Fresh Prince.

FPOBA: Season by Season Reviews

Season 1 – 7.1/10

A Funky-Fresh New TV Series

Despite A Poor Start & Shaky Acting/Writing Early-On, A Fine Introduction Loaded With Rap Energy, Hype, & A Potential-Filled Lead

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S1 – Establishing itself as a funky-fresh new sitcom steeped in 90’s culture, S1 of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s mega-stylism and rap energy is very attractive and serves as an adequate jumping-off point to the series – introducing us to its clever premise, precocious commentary on black themes, and well-cast characters led by the charming/starpower-oozing Will Smith it’s no surprise became one of the world’s biggest movie stars after this TV show. The acting, characterization, storylines, and punchlines are very rough around the edges throughout this awkward first impression, both starting and ending weakly with a brief stint of stabilized comedy mid-season around Ep. 11 (Courting Disaster) – Ep. 14 (Day Damn One). This is almost to the point of being a borderline-bad season, but as with many comedic series, you should give it a chance to S2 to see what it’s really about after its growing pains/brace-phase are behind them, and Fresh Prince knocks it out of the park from the very first episode of Season 2. 7.1/10.

Season 2 – 9.3/10

One Of The Best S2’s In TV Comedy

A Brilliant Correction Of Every Flaw From S1 & Greatest Comedic Heights + Social-Activism Of Any Season. The Best Season Of FPOBA.

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S2 – Boasting one of the best first halves of as season and turnarounds I’ve ever seen in comedic-sitcom history, Fresh Prince’s S2 instantaneously corrects nearly everything plaguing the royalty in S1 – with an infusion of energy and youthful-vivacity from its opening shot. Most striking is how its star became a 10x-better actor seemingly-overnight, able to flip the switch into a thespianism now matching his superstar-charisma so that W.S. can be properly-articulate his punchlines for max, glorious efficacy. The black cultural themes are equally as resonant as S1’s, perhaps even more universally-applicable here in ones like interracial marriages, following your dreams, morality parables, gold-diggers, status and class dynamics, racial justice/protests, community service, and superficiality vs. love-connection. Don’t get it twisted though, the series doesn’t lose a single bit of its comedic skill and pure-90‘s entertainment value in the landmine-field, navigating it to deliver countless All-Time classic episodes like Did The Earth Move For You?, The Mother Of All Battles, PSAT Pstory, The Big Four-Oh, Guess Who’s Coming To Marry?, Cased Up, The Butler Did It, My Brother’s Keeper, Those Were The Days, and Striptease For Two – literally almost every episode in the season (besides a brief stint of lethargy mid-season) being sitcom gold. The best season of FPOBA, S2 proved The Prince was here to stay and one of the best comedic series of its era. 9.3/10.

Season 3 – 8.7/10

A Graduation

Though An Erratic-Start & Lazily-Scripted Continuity Errors Take Some Buzz, A Funny & Resonant Season Loaded With Top Cameo’s

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S3 – Though the season starts as erratically/messily as Will’s new hairstyle and Aunt Vivian’s ham-fisted (real-life forced) pregnancy arc S3 of FPOBA may stumble out the gate with some perplexingly unfocused episodes and lazily-scripted continuity errors (how does Carlton just forgive Will for stealing his girlfriend? Why did Lester/Helen get divorced after an ep specifically devoted to them working it out in S2? Same thing with Vy/Robert after Will accepted and they chimed wedding bells? Why the recasted Frank?). However, it settles into a nice groove shortly after – bringing some fantastic cameo’s of the highest star-power like Sherman Hemsley’s absolutely sensational old/crass/senile Judge Robertson (one of my favorite cameo roles ever.. too funny and everything he brought from The Jeffersons reinvented), Bo Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey. The season also tackles more weighty themes like teen pregnancy, gender and criminal stereotypes, gold-digging, the entertainment industry, and even drug abuse – one of the great and most serious episodes of a sitcom and a sign of FPOBA starting to take its craft/platform more seriously. The comedy is balanced yet again, with plenty of fantastic episodes like P.S. I Love You, Winner Takes Off, Just Say Yo, and Robbing the Banks culminating in a spectacular season finale and introduction to the legendary Carlton Dance. 8.7/10.

Season 4 – 9.2/10

The Fresh Prince Goes To College

Arguably The Best Season Of FPOBA – Filled With Character-Development, Tyra Banks, & Perhaps Its Two Best Episodes: Will Goes A Courtin’.. And Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S4 – The Fresh Prince goes to college in its 4th season – and the result is perhaps the best season of the TV series. Though I wish we were able to spend a bit more time in High School (with the majority of its best episodes arguably being Bel Air Prep-centered ones), the campus set-designs were a bit better-scouted, and – of course – they didn’t do the infamous Aunt Viv switch: one of the most bizarre and unnecesscary as well as ineffectual TV-recasts ever subjugating Hubert’s strong black woman into a complacent and run-of-the-mill Reid version, S4 is a FPOBA in full control of its craft. Each character in the Banks family is given beautiful development, from Uncle Phil/Aunt Viv and Ashley’s coming-of-age parables to Hillary’s loss of her future-husband in Trevor to biggest of: Will and Carlton embarking on the existential journey of life: college. Themes of classism, underage-drinking, coming-of-age, finding your life’s calling, work ethic, fulfillment, love, health, and self-discovery are juggled brilliantly, all while delivering plenty of laughs and cameos. One of the biggest achievements – and most shocking one at that – is its recurring cameo of Tyra Banks’ Jacqueline: a major joy to watch as a beautiful and strikingly-charismatic female complement to Will Smith’s Prince who oozes chemistry and carries her scenes (before she bizarrely disappears halfway through). The Best Episode of All-Time of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air history (in CLC’s vote, one of the funniest 23 minutes of sitcom TV we’ve ever seen to date) is here: the multi-narrative legal-spoof Will Goes A Courtin’, and there are multiple appearances in the Top 5 as well, from the nightswept comedy of Sleepless in Bel-Air to Playboy Mansion-cameo in Fresh Prince After Dark to striking health exposition of Home The Heart Attack Is to the series’ most famous moment: Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse. The scene is without exaggeration one of the most powerful sequences of television ever filmed, witnessing firsthand the heartbreaking experience and pure cowardice of a father walking out on their child – brought to life by a pedigree of acting that shocked the world & cemented Will Smith as one of Hollywood’s best and FPOBA as a series so much more than just laughs. 9.2/10.

Season 5 – 7.3/10

The Prince & His Princess

One Of The Most Bizarre & Maddening Seasons Of TV I’ve Witnessed, Refusing To Commit To Arc & Wasting A Perfect Marriage

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S5 – One of the most bizarre seasons of TV I’ve witnessed, S5 of FPOBA is all-over-the-place. A breathtakingly-disappointing start and copout on the potentially-brilliant S4 finale shake-up of a Fresh Prince of Philadelphia angle and plot hole-riddled Ashley-pop-stardom mini-arc makes way to a subpar season amongst FPOBA’s worst following perhaps the series’ best. There are plenty of positives: A fresh addition of a phenomenal child actor in Ross Bagley’s sass-and-sarcasm Nicky, several classic episodes like Fresh Prince: The Movie, mega throwback Soul Train, and continued social-consciousness on important themes in some classic episodes like gun-control in Bullets Over Bel-Air and gender dynamics in Love Hurts/Will Is From Mars (Sherman Hemsley always FTW!), and the S5’s biggest accomplishment – Nia Long’s warm-and-delicate Lisa finally giving the Prince his chemistry-full Princess. There are many flaws as well, beyond the opener’s aforementioned. Two of the series’ best characters are thrown into question: Hillary and Ashley, with Ashley becoming far too rebellious and ungrateful of everything the Banks built and Hillary looking like she took a few of the crazy-pills Hubert did in S3 going from one of the most refined performances and funniest characters in the show spoofing the socialite princess daddy’s girls of Bel-Air to a mega-90’s curls, pant-suited, zany talk show-host far-goofier & whose angle still does not fit her character at all: being dichotomously ~stupid in many scenes unable to carry out basic conversations.. yet able to make a career/multi-national program built on that very same principle? This is but small potatoes compared to the season’s maddening refusal to commit to the arc it spends the ENTIRE SEASON building up to: Lisa and Will’s marriage, only to copout (multiple times..) and throw it away without explanation for Will’s almost-wife to never be seen or spoken of again – a ~total waste of the season narratively and one of the most bizarre fits of writing-laziness/messiness I’ve witnessed to-date. The acting and comedy of its heights does buoy it over the passibility line, but The Prince is in trouble unless he starts cleaning up his kingdom.. and invest in some storyboards. 7.3/10.

Season 6 – 8.5/10

I, Done

The Final Season OF FPOBA Ends On An Emotional Bang With Beautiful Culmination Arcs For Everyone.. Except The Prince

Photo Courtesy Of: NBC

S6 – The final season of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ends with an emotionally-resonant bang – despite beginning on one of the most irresponsible notes in TV history, completely forgetting any semblance of its pre-existing storylines or S5 cliffhanger like.. I don’t know.. Will almost getting MARRIED. The season recovers into a beautiful culmination of arcs for every character: Carlton finally gets accepted to Princeton, Hilary and Ashley move to NYC as young women to start new careers in the arts (Hilary now being independent), Geoffrey is relieved of duty and sent back first-class to be with his son as a father, Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil deal with the plight of parenthood/empty-nesting selling the house to move back East with the family, and Will moves out on his own. The cameo’s are legendary and rapid-fire S6 with star-power – from Jahlil White to Dick Clark to George Forman to William Shatner to Sherman Hemsley to B.B. King, flaws from S5 corrected (Karyn Parsons is back to S1-Hilary and Ashley less-vexing), and comedy in the season is some of the best it’s ever been – loaded with classic episodes like Not I Barbecue (one of the funniest sitcom episodes I’ve seen in blind-date-gone-wrong), Viva Lost Wages, Burnin’ Down The House, and legendary blooper episode Whoops There It Is all making you feel like part of the family.. culminating to the tear-jerking finale ending on a emotionally-resonant note seeing that famous living room we spent 6 years in empty with the lights out. There are problems, like its bizarre aforementioned irresonsibility to leaving the major S5 Lisa arc completely-openended withhout even a passive mention of what happened to the Fresh Princess and, shockingly: Will’s final arc. Part of the reason I really wish S5’s major arc was flipped to S6’s for Will is that.. Will’s S6 culmination is ~anticlimactic. Apartment-hunting isn’t quite the final image of the Prince I had in mind back in S6E01. Marriage would’ve given him big stakes and fantastic character development from playboy to husband matching the finale heights of the rest of the family instead of treating its star character’s turmoil like a joke; Graduation from college would’ve done the same by adding a massive life accomplishment to highlight the difference between that goofy rap kid from S1 to now. Overall, the magnificent final arc for every other character, cameo-riddled and comedically-prestige season, and emotionally-resonant finale make for a great send-off that really makes you appreciate how phenomenal a show this was when it all goes black – I just wish the Fresh Prince himself was treated more like royalty than an afterthought by the writer’s room. 8.5/10.

Official CLC Score: 8.7/10