It is an honor and a privilege to celebrate the 25th anniversary of one my favorite shows, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!
Every week, I looked forward to tuning in to see how this affluent family of color navigated the often-complicated existence of being black in a predominantly white community. It was an experience I knew well, growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. In Fresh Prince, I found a show that — thanks to the diversity in front of and behind the camera — created an authentic, complex version of my worldview. Once a week, no matter how hectic our schedules, my family and I gathered to watch, creating a ritual that fostered closeness and prompted deeper conversations about life, race, sex and more.
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Each episode is near and dear to my heart, but the five on this list came to mind most readily because they represent a wonderful mixture of playfulness, wit and genuine sincerity. Hopefully, the full series will be available for streaming soon — looking at you, Netflix and/or Hulu! — but until then, the episodes below are a great place to (re)start.
1. “The Big Four-Oh” (aka “The One Where Aunt Viv Slays”)
Gif: Awesomely Luvvie
This episode solidified my undying respect for the original Aunt Viv. Janet Hubert not only showcases her substantial acting chops but also her incredible dance skills. (If you need a few more reasons to love Vivian Banks, check out this post by Luvvie.) The premise of the episode is Vivian turning 40 and feeling a bit uneasy about this milestone. In an effort to make some changes to her usual routine, she decides to revisit one of her first loves: dance. What follows is a lighthearted but meaningful journey toward self-awareness and self-love.
2. “72 Hours”
Will and Carlton make a bet that Carlton can’t last more than a day in Compton. The conclusion tackles the question of blackness — what it means and who gets to decide the parameters. It does an outstanding job of illustrating how unnecessary it can be to attempt to prove who you are to someone else. While Carlton remains the butt of many jokes about his blackness over the course of the show’s run, he and Will both make astute points in this scene and their relationship reaches a turning point. I appreciated the injection of commentary on intra-racial issues within the black community. Similarly, the episode where Carlton and Will pledge the black fraternity touches on this subject matter, too.
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3. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse”
When Will’s father makes an unexpected appearance, the family wrestles with mixed feelings. Will, of course, is delighted at the prospect of finally having a relationship with his dad. Over the course of the episode, however, it becomes apparent there will be no happy ending. In the powerful final moments, Smith makes it clear he is a skilled dramatic actor, in addition to being a gifted physical comedian. I highly recommend watching the entire episode, but if you can’t wait, catch the pivotal scene right here.
4. “The Christmas Show”
This episode marks the first time America beheld the phenomenon known as the Carlton. It’s not just a dance, but a movement that deftly encapsulates its namesake. It was — and remains — so beloved, Alfonso Ribeiro brought it back for his recent stint on Dancing with the Stars, much to the enjoyment of fans, old and new.
5. “Bullets Over Bel-Air, Part 1”
I chose this episode because it showcases the depth of the relationship between Will and Carlton. The two characters are withdrawing money from an ATM when they’re robbed at gunpoint. In the midst of the attack, Will is shot. Carlton visits Will in the hospital and the ensuing interaction is a brilliantly acted scene that crackles with humor and poignance.
As we celebrate 25 years, I can’t help but marvel at the series’ ability to remain relevant after two decades. The show ran for six incredible years and managed to create some of the funniest, most thought-provoking and memorable moments in television history (no small feat for a primetime show with predominantly black actors, writers and executives). It gave me so much and I can’t wait to pass it along to my own children. Happy 25th anniversary, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!
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