Off the Charts: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

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I was an avid TV-watcher as a kid.  Between Saturday morning cartoons, after-school afternoon shows, all-day Nickelodeon-a-thons, and NES my young life revolved around the Television.  Well that and action figures.

Despite all the TV-ing I did there was only ever ONE show I remember being excited about the premiere: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  Honestly I don’t know how I heard about it, what the promotion for the show was, and even if I was a huge Fresh Prince fan before the show (I knew several of the songs but I was deep into Guns N Roses love at this point…) but for some reason I have a distinct memory of my sister and I ending playing outside early (unheard of!) to run inside and crowd around the second TV in my parents’ room (sitting on a giant desk and occasionally requiring a SMACK on the side to work properly) to watch the very first episode.

As part of my 90s nostalgia I bought and re-watched the entire show from start to finish over the last couple of weeks.  There was a lot I’d forgotten, a lot that I remembered (and couldn’t WAIT to get to!), and some changing opinions on the show itself.  Here are my thoughts:

The show starts, as many shows do, with a cliché premise.  This one is “fish out of water.”  Will Smith, from West Philadelphia (born and raised), moves in with his rich relatives and their clash of cultures causes hilarity.  I remember as a kid only seeing the Will-side of things and reveling in his bucking of the establishment.  Watching as an adult I realize it’s more complex than that.  In the very first episode Uncle Phil (James Avery) sets Will straight, he might be a kid from the streets now, but being an adult on the streets isn’t appealing, Phil worked hard to get where he is and while Will’s revolutionary spirit is often the white hat of the show, you see the value of the Banks’ ethics too.  Similarly in another episode Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) comments that Will mocks him for being the “bourgie” guy he is, but in doing so he’s being as unaccepting of Carlton’s personality and much as he (Will) claims the Bel Air society is unaccepting of him.  It’s much deeper than just watching wild-Will run amok as I thought as a kid.

The show is full of lots of running themes; Will’s “look to camera,” cartoon effects, Jazz being thrown out.  A lot of common threads that are undoubtedly “Fresh Prince.”  It’s like watching live-action Looney Tunes in a way.  Even the serious moments I hated as a kid are effective now.  Try watching Will respond to his father leaving and not be affected!

The show also has some of the best bloopers I’ve ever seen.  The only unusual aspect of the show is the high number of clip shows they do.  Even in the early season.  I learned from audio commentaries on The Simpsons that this is something networks do to save money and this may be the case here.  It’s not a complaint as the clips are always the best of the show, just strange to have a second season clip show.

Another strange thing that hit me while watching it is how much has changed in the intervening time between the show’s original run and now.  The stars they mention who we lost way before their time (specifically Heavy D, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson), and the fickle nature of the trends as celebrities on the show who received raucous cheers who are now in the midst of relative obscurity.

My favorite aspect of the show is Jazz.  DJ Jazzy Jeff, in addition to being one hell of a DJ (a REAL DJ.  Ya know…with records…) is absolutely a riot every time he’s on screen.  You can tell he’s not a trained actor, but his part is so funny it doesn’t matter.

Here are some of my personal favorite moments:

If it’s been a while since you’ve visited Bel Air I say pick it up.  It’s one of the rare shows from the 90s that, while it does have its dated moments, is as funny now as when it was made.

Below is the REAL FULL theme song of the Fresh Prince.  As far as I know it never aired.  Only an extended version during the first two episodes.  It’s still missing two sections in the middle.  But to answer a long standing question, no the Prince didn’t take a cab from West Philly to Bel Air!

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