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The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air hid an insurgent heart beneath neon slapstick

If anything, you could tell this sitcom was rare

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. In this edition, we look at The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, which ran for six seasons and 148 episodes on NBC from 1990 to 1996.

Here is a sentence that is inarguably bizarre without context: Every Fresh Prince fan should feel indebted to the Internal Revenue Service.

Here is a sentence that may sound even more far-fetched: The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was one of the most subversive network sitcoms of its time.

Regarding that first improbable sentence: When Will Smith met music producer Benny Medina, Smith had already won the first Grammy awarded in the rap category as part of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. He had already made a fortune. But Smith was particularly receptive to Medina’s pitch—that he star in a television show based on the producer’s childhood move from Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood to Beverly Hills—for one simple reason: He had already spent a fortune, too, and he neglected to send the government its share of his earnings. Smith was nearly bankrupt after the IRS assessed his unpaid taxes at $2.8 million. The show was a shot at solvency, and Smith’s wages were garnished 70 percent during the first three seasons to pay his back taxes.

Medina and his partner Jeff Pollack capitalized on Smith’s eagerness for a steady paycheck and brought him to see Quincy Jones, who wanted to produce a sitcom starring the charismatic MC. “He told everyone from NBC, ‘Listen, I got your next star. I need you to come to my house after the Soul Train Music Awards.’ So everyone went to his house,” Smith told James Lipton in an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio. The details of Medina’s childhood were fuzzed to match the star’s biography. The main character would also be named Will Smith, and like Smith, he would be “born and raised” in West Philadelphia. According to Smith, nobody asked him if he could act before the deal was signed. He did not know how; in his first scenes on the series he is clearly mouthing along with other actors’ lines.

Smith treated Fresh Prince like an acting bootcamp, and his lack of experience didn’t hamper the show. NBC put the fledgling actor front-and-center from the beginning and let his charisma compensate until his acting caught up.

NBC didn’t have the threat of tax evasion charges to deal with, but the network was as desperate as Smith to make Fresh Prince a (profitable) sensation. Cheers and The Cosby Show were still on the air, but winding down. Seinfeld had only aired five little-watched episodes. NBC wanted a new hit with a hook for younger viewers, and the network pinned high expectations on the sitcom. The network heavily hyped Fresh Prince, banking on the Banks family becoming a younger, hipper, richer Californian iteration of those golden Huxtables.

Though it initially floundered in the ratings, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air developed an audience with the help of the network hungry for a hit. Out of all the shows NBC introduced that fall, only Law & Order and Fresh Prince got sophomore seasons. After the first season, the network continued to promote the show with younger viewers, courting the Blossom audience by having Will Smith befriend Mayim Bialik’s spunky hat-wearing teen. This was a confusing move by NBC because Smith appeared as himself on Blossom, but later on Blossom showed older brother Anthony dating Hilary Banks in a crossover episode, implying that in the Blossom universe both Will Smith the adult rapper and Will Smith the fictional teen student existed.

While the Blossom promo appearances were confounding in their universe-building, NBC’s overall advertising blitz and continued support of the show worked. It ran 148 episodes over six seasons, from 1990 to 1996. During that time, Smith’s starpower skyrocketed. By the end of the series he had starred with Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys and filmed what would become his biggest role to that date as a wisecracking alien-puncher in Independence Day.

With a rising star at its center, Fresh Prince did well in the ratings, but the show has maintained a place in pop culture that is disproportionate to the size of its initial audience because of an especially wide and successful syndication schedule that began in 1994 and continues today. The show’s success wasn’t limited to the United States; it benefited from heavy rotation internationally as well. In Hungarian, it was called Kaliforniába Jöttem (translation: I Come To California). In Brazil, it became Um Maluco No Pedaço (A Crazy In The Area). In Italy, it was Willy, Il Principe Di Bel Air.

Along with other family-values sitcoms like Full House and Family Matters, Fresh Prince aired in afternoons on network television across the world during and after its initial run. It was the perfect after-school show, with a cast of young actors and slapstick humor. It remained cool even after it aired because Smith was a popular actor and rapper, but it was as clean as the squeaky sneakers Will favored on the show.

The Hollywood Reporter acknowledged NBC’s grand plans for Fresh Prince shortly after it aired, admitting it was “the network’s great primetime hope.” The same review could only muster faint praise, calling it “tolerable television, far from a revelatory experience.” That assessment isn’t inaccurate. Fresh Prince is formulaic to a fault, a boilerplate comedy on which most episodes wrap up neatly with a moral lesson bestowed upon one of the characters after a misadventure. Fresh Prince is also intensely, unabashedly corny—the kind of thing Carlton would’ve watched, not Will. The setup is a contrived fish-out-of-water scenario. Though based on Medina’s experiences, the network selected a 32-year-old white Harvard grad from suburban Ohio named Andy Borowitz as showrunner, along with his then-wife Susan. (Borowitz dropped out of the show in 1995, and is now a humorist whose parodic articles in the New Yorker inspire chuckles from affluent dads across America.)

On paper, the lead character the Borowitz team and their writers conjured is little more than an amalgamation of tropes about poor black kids: a slang-speaking fan of rap, flashy clothes, and basketball with no father figure and issues with authority, equal parts a subject of pity and a buffoon. Fresh Prince succeeds because it imbues this tough-talking charity case with humanity and positions him as an audience surrogate instead of a figure to be laughed at.

Which is where that second improbable sentence comes in: Despite the hacky premise, Fresh Prince snuck in a firm, persistent commitment to addressing experiences specific to black people in America—including institutionalized racism and identity politics—to a degree that isn’t present in contemporary sitcoms.

The show, for all its rounded edges and pat wrap-ups, directly addresses race and (to a lesser extent) class issues. The willingness of Fresh Prince’s writers to explore how its characters understand their blackness is one of the show’s strengths, and it was able to do this within the network system because Smith was such an affable figure, something the producers were aware of from the beginning. Smith’s crossover likeability and the show’s inherent hokiness served as a kind of Trojan horse to broadcast material that explicitly deals with charged issues like racial profiling and tokenism.

“Will is not threatening,’’ Benny Medina told The New York Times in 1990. “As the show develops, we will start to deal with some of the same things as N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube and artists with a much more radical way of communicating their life style. But we’ll do it Will’s way, rather than in their language.’’ Will’s way was one of reconciliation rather than confrontation.

By placing the Banks family in an upper-class social milieu, The Fresh Prince portrays a black American experience that hadn’t been represented on television yet; the closest thing were the upper-middle-class Huxtables of The Cosby Show, but the Banks’ situation was one of over-the-top wealth. The Banks were cufflink Republicans with hired help, and the show milked the tension between Will’s “hood” sensibility and the Banks’ luxurious lifestyle. It was quietly progressive in the way it used Will as the audience surrogate struggling to comprehend the wealth of the Banks’ splashy world, since it assumed the audience identifies more with Will and therefore also assumes the audience is primed to relate to a rapper over a stuffed suit.

Will’s introduction to the family interrupts the dynamic in a way that exposes Carlton, Hilary, and Ashley to a different experience. He is a brash interloper, but his demeanor isn’t what gets mocked; it’s the stuffy, pretentious attitudes of Carlton, Uncle Phil, and Hilary that are more often the butt of jokes.

Here’s the A-plot of one of the first season’s episodes: Will complains that his history class doesn’t cover what happened to black people in the United States. Aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil agree, and Aunt Viv agrees to teach some black history to the predominantly white class. While Will and Carlton dislike her rigorous assignments, she tells them that she was hardest on them because they are the only two black students and she wanted them to get the most out of the history. She gives Will The Autobiography Of Malcolm X at the end of the episode, and a Malcolm X quote bookends the episode.

Granted, some Fresh Prince plots read like they could have been lifted straight from The Nanny, what with the brash lower-class outsider making himself at home with a fancy family and their butler. But there is no fucking way The Nanny would end an episode with a Malcolm X quote or feature a character reading an Amiri Baraka poem.

Fresh Prince repeatedly circles back on how its characters experience crises of authenticity in regards to their blackness. In one episode, Will bets Carlton he can’t last a weekend in Compton, prompting Carlton to move in with Jazz and his friends (and into one of the least realistic “ghetto” sets of all time; Fresh Prince is on point when it showcases identity crises but it is laughably, almost unbelievably bad at sets showing supposedly sketchy places). These plotlines worked because the show and its star were engaged in a different sort of respectability politics, a kind that allowed for Will to wear his pants low and listen to rap, but nevertheless espoused family values as vehemently as any other white-bread, after-school-special-style family sitcom.

Academic William Maxwell summarized Fresh Prince’s achievements in this area as such, noting that the show transforms the figure of the rapper from a disrespectful antagonist to a conciliatory figure, “a kind of streetwise instructor of African-American history who hopes to remedy contemporary black liberalism’s bourgeois blues with remembrance of a less comfortable but more heroic past.”

Maxwell’s assessment of Fresh Prince is astute, acknowledging that the show avoids and accommodates as Will “works to restore black consensus, mediating a generational difference that is thought of in class and regional as well as Oedipal terms.” Fresh Prince was attempting to capture a range of black experiences and turned a rapper into a three-dimensional protagonist capable of pathos in between his groaners. It was a rarity when it aired and remains a rarity now. This, along with the cast’s chemistry, is the core of its enduring appeal. But it was still a network television show and never veered into aggression. This is especially so in later seasons when the plots relied on Smith’s easy charm more than anything else.

Success for Fresh Prince did not herald an uptick in black sitcoms. Executive producers Winifred Hervey, David Salzman, and Quincy Jones re-tried the “comedy + rapper = big ratings” formula with LL Cool J and In The House—they even cast Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton in a season-two crossover episode. (Ribeiro joined the cast as a regular after Fresh Prince wound down, creating another Blossom-like paradox in which Ribeiro exists in the In The House reality as two separate people.) The arrangement had diminishing returns: At its most-watched, In The House was the 44th most popular show in the country, far less than Fresh Prince, which reached 14th on the Nielsen ratings in its most popular season. In 1996, the year Fresh Prince went off the air, an Ebony magazine article lamented the demise of the black-oriented show.

Fresh Prince did not start a revolution, and its examinations of race and class were always sanitized and cosseted. It’s a good family sitcom, but not a great television series. Though it’s important to underline its modest impact and its limitations as a work of art, it’s equally important to recognize that the show isn’t just special because it has a killer theme song that conjures medical-grade ’90s nostalgia. It’s important because it offered multiple narratives of what it means to be black in the U.S., and because it gave audiences a protagonist who vacillated between different iterations of race and class identities without ever losing his humanity.

Next time: “Hello… w-why yes, there’s a 100 Episodes column about The Bob Newhart Show all lined up.” “The, uh, author? Looks like a Phil Dyess-Nugent.” “Yes. ‘Nugent.’” “No, we don’t know if he’s any relation to Ted. Okay. All right. We’ll, uh, we’ll talk to you again in January.”