Times Digital Download: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
October 15, 2017 | 7:38 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air began as a way for Will Smith to pay his taxes has now evolved into a show that is loved by all.

“One, two, three, Bel Air!” The first time I heard that now iconic chant, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air after all is not a title that simply slides off of your tongue. It is in fact, quite wordy, a name that causes people who haven’t heard of it to smile and not politely, the same sort of confused half-grin they give you when they are unable to make head-or-tail of what it is you actually do for a living.

I had the exact same look on my face, until I actually saw the show for the first time, and while it proved to be extremely popular when it first aired – we’re talking early 90s here – it will forever now be known for another reason. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the show that brought Will Smith into the big-time, and it’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back since.

What began as a way for Will Smith to pay his taxes has now evolved into a show that is loved by all, and shows people just what America looked like during the 1990s.

The show was conceptualised when Smith, who was a successful rapper in the 80s and went by the name of The Fresh Prince, owed the taxman nearly $2.8 million because of poor budgeting. NBC approached him to do a show so that he could foot the bill, and history was made.

The opening shots of the show establish the premise of the show, with Smith himself rapping the lyrics: In West Philadelphia, born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days. Chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool, and all shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school. When a couple of guys who were up to no good, started making trouble in my neighbourhood. I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, she said you’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air.

Shipped across the US from his hometown of Philadelphia to the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air, Smith – who plays a fictional version of himself – moves in with his uncle Philip Banks, aunt Vivian, and cousins Carlton, Hillary, and Ashley.

From the get go, Will proves to be the number one source of mayhem and trouble to his uncle, a successful lawyer who had to work hard to make his way to the top, and wants to give his three children all the things he never had. Living in Bel-Air, though has made the Banks children a little bit soft: Carlton’s upper-class preppy ways clash with Will’s street-wise but honourable character, Hillary’s airheaded, vapid, self-centred personality revolves solely around buying the latest dresses – hence her favourite catchphrase, ‘daddy, I need 300 dollars. I need a new hat,’ and Ashley’s being forced to take up a bunch of activities she doesn’t really see the point in doing, whether it’s playing the violin, performing ballet, or her tennis lessons.

Predictably, Will’s first week in the house sees him pawn Ashley’s violin (without asking uncle Phil first) because he thinks she prefers playing the drums. Enter his bestie, who solely goes by the name ‘Jazz’, played by well-known rapper and DJ Jeffrey A. Townes, one of Smith’s closest musical collaborators.

All of this means that the Banks trio also avoid hard work, despite their parents’ best efforts to make them do so, even if their mum Vivian — a sassy, independent college professor with a PhD who had to work nights to make ends meet – tries to get them to hustle.

That responsibility is taken on by Geoffrey, played by Joseph Marcell, the Banks family’s trusted butler, who is as quintessentially British as they come. In his own words, “a good butler sees all, hears nothing, and takes notes for his autobiography”.

Under-appreciated and overworked, Geoffrey’s got a heart of gold, but does show his devious side from time to time, selling out secrets of the Banks’ family to the press “for a tidy sum”, or trying to fool Will and Carlton into settling a bet with him.

But Geoffrey’s best remembered for his poker-face stare with which he delivers his hilariously witty one-liners. It’s a classic case of British deadpan humour meeting loud, boisterous American comedy, and the result is pure comedic genius.

On a more serious note, though, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air also shed some very necessary light on the problems faced by black Americans during its period, such as unwarranted arrests based on the colour of one’s skin, a lack of black history taught in a primarily upper-class, white-majority prep school, and the problems of interracial marriage at the time.

In short, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a show that shows us a glimpse into what shaped contemporary America, and is the kind of great evergreen TV that can be watched at any time, over and over and over again.

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The Short and Skinny

Name: The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air

Genre: Sitcom

Produced By: Andy and Susan Borowitz

Produced For: NBC

What it’s about: After getting into trouble with some older boys in his neighbourhood in west Philadelphia, Will Smith is sent to live with his rich aunt and uncle, and their three children, in Bel-Air, California.

Starring: Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Tatiana Ali, Vernee Watson-Johnson, Daphne Maxwell-Reed, Janet Hubert-Whitten, Joseph Marcell, Jeffrey A. Townes, Ross Bagley, James Avery

Where to Watch: Netflix, TBS, CBS, Comedy Central, Amazon

Runtime: 30 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.9/10

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