The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Was Way Ahead Of Its Time

Photo: NBC/Getty Images.
It's easy to look back on pop-culture artifacts — TV shows, movies, songs — and praise them for being "before their time." But The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air truly was leaps and bounds ahead of television when it premiered in the fall of 1990. The family sit-com starred a young Will Smith in his breakout role playing...Will Smith, our titular teenage "Fresh Prince." The show begins when his streetwise smart-aleck, a Philly transplant, is sent to live with his Uncle Phil (James Avery) and the bourgeois Banks family in the posh L.A. neighborhood of Bel-Air.
The show was reliably hilarious thanks in large part to Smith's impeccable timing and knack for physical comedy. But it also took the time to slow down and veer away from the standard sitcom fare. Over six seasons, Fresh Prince tackled sensitive issues with confidence, candor, and a little humor. We watch Will grapple with systemic racism, classism, gun violence, drug use, absentee fathers, and, not least, the politics of Black identity — best played out by the dynamic relationship between Will and his preppy cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro). So on the 20th anniversary of the progressive comedy's series finale, here are the show's most significant, touching, and meaningful moments.
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Season 1, Episode 1, "The Fresh Prince Project"

The pilot episode sets up the entire dynamic of Will and his Uncle Phil's relationship. Phil reams Will out for his inappropriate behavior at a family dinner, and Will bites back by accusing Phil of losing touch with his roots.

Will's uncle sets him straight. "Now, you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall," he says. "I heard the brother speak, I read every word he wrote." It's a clash of Black experiences shaped by different generations, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds that plays out throughout the show.
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Season 1, Episode 6, "Mistaken Identity"

Will and Carlton get pulled over while driving Uncle Phil's white colleague's car and thrown in jail by the police officers for car theft.
This satisfying scene is when lawyer Uncle Phil storms into the station and calls out the officers for their racist misconduct, wielding his knowledge of the law.

Carlton doesn't want to believe that the police could be so bigoted. But Will knows the sad truth: "It’s called the 'If you see a Black guy driving anything but a burnt-out Pinto you better stop him because he stole it' law."
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Season 1, Episode 23, "72 Hours"

Will wagers that Carlton isn't tough enough to last a weekend in Compton. To his surprise, Carlton goes full "gangster" while hanging out with Jazz's friends. Watching Carlton masquerade as a hoodlum is hilarious, but the conversation they have after they're home safe and sound really strikes a chord. Carlton wanted to prove himself to Will. "You always act like I don’t measure up to some rule of Blackness that you carry around," he says. And Will feels the same way: "You treat me like I’m some kind of idiot just ’cause I talk different."
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Season 3, Episode 2, "Will Gets Committed"

Vivian and Phil bring the family along to help friends clean up their old neighborhood after the Rodney King riots ravage L.A. This is a huge episode because Vivian, after acting weird all day, reveals her pregnancy to Phil.

But this particular moment illustrates the tension between Black people who have climbed up the socioeconomic ladder and those they leave behind. "You come down here, do the right thing, and then you go home patting yourself on the back because you helped out the poor folk," says Noah (played by guest star Shavar Ross). Do the Adams have an obligation to lift up the people where they came from?
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Season 3, Episode 19, "Just Say Yo"

This episode showed both the light and the heavy-hearted aspects of taking drugs. Carlton gets high on speed pills that he believed to be vitamins and dances like a maniac at prom in a very funny scene. It's all in good fun until he winds up in the hospital.

Will fesses up to Uncle Phil that the pills were from his own locker — he had them on hand in case the stress of final exams and basketball practice got to be too much — and makes a heartfelt apology in another of Smith's best scenes.
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Season 4, Episode 8, "Blood Is Thicker Than Mud"

After Will and Carlton rush the same frat, Will gets accepted — but Carlton is rejected for being a "sellout to his people." Preppy, earnest, proper, and studious, Carlton doesn't fit the bill for their idea of being Black. But, as Carlton explains in this telling exchange, "Being Black isn't what I'm trying to be, it's what I am." It poses the question of whether he is punished for his privilege, hard work, and success. "I'm running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are," he reasons, "so why are you tripping me up?"
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Season 4, Episode 24, "Papa's Got A Brand-New Excuse"

The final scene in this episode might be the most emotional one in the history of the show. Will's dad, Lou, shows up after 14 years out of the picture. They clock some great father-son time, but Phil's instincts — that Lou will just disappear again — prove to be right when Lou flakes on a trip with Will and leaves.

Smith gives a truly Emmy-worthy performance here — pretending he doesn't care, then angrily yelling about how he doesn't need his father, and finally letting himself break down: "How come he don't want me, man?" It even makes LeBron James cry every single time.
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Season 5, Episode 15, "Bullets Over Bel-Air"

Fresh Prince tackles yet another serious issue relevant to young Black audiences with heft and heart. Will takes a bullet for Carlton at an ATM hold-up. But the most emotional scene happens after the shooting, when Carlton visits Will in the hospital — and reveals he bought himself a gun for protection.

This episode depicted the position of a vulnerable young Black man who is scared for his safety — and is a look at how gun violence is a self- perpetuating cycle. Will ultimately convinces Carlton to give up the weapon, telling him, "That's not you, man. That's them."
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