Warner Bros. // 1990 // 587 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // March 9th, 2005
Carlton: Oh, Will, must you be so ribald?!
Will: I refuse to answer that until I have my lawyer and a dictionary present.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was reality television for the eighties. A popular young rapper (Will Smith, who was best known for his single "Parents Just Don't Understand") plays himself in a half-hour situation comedy in which he is suddenly taken from the mean streets of Philadelphia and deposited in the posh residence of his aunt and uncle in Bel-Air, California. This fish-out-of-water story resonated with audiences, who loved the off-kilter sensibility of the show (Smith would often look directly into the camera or talk directly to the audience) and appreciated the fact that it wasn't just another "look at me, I can act!" vehicle for a popular performer -- the strong family unit presented by the other actors made the show parent-friendly as well as kid-friendly. The show was also a crossover hit, repeating the success of series like "The Jeffersons" and proving that a sitcom with a predominately black cast could attract a strong following among white viewers as well. Within the first season, Will Smith and the cast of the show wowed audiences and set themselves up for a six-season run, the first season of which is collected in this boxed set.
Will Smith is a homeboy born and raised in Philadelphia, but his mother doesn't like the rough environment he is growing up in. She knows he is bright (Will has a natural ease with school work and a thirst for knowledge) and has potential, but she sees too many opportunities for him to get into trouble and ruin his chances for a good life. So she makes a deal with her sister and brother-in-law for them to take Will in and give him a shot at the education she cannot afford to provide on her post office salary.
As soon as Will arrives, he doesn't fit in. The residence of his uncle, Phillip Banks (James Avery), is immaculate and expansive. The Bankses are loaded, as a friend of Will's (DJ Jazzy Jeff, the other half of Smith's rap duo) will exclaim when he first visits their mansion. Papa Phillip works as a lawyer, and his wife, Vivian (the lovely Janet Hubert-Whitten), is a college professor. Will feels out of place with his sometimes crude streetwise attitude, manner of speech (he says "drahws" in a syrupy drawl, rather than "drawers," when referring to his boxer briefs), and general unfamiliarity with rich society. His first impulse is to rebel, to stand out even further by funking up his formal wear, breaking out with a rap or a crazy dance when his relations least expect it, and embarrassing Phillip in front of his law partners. Eventually, he finds a rhythm with the family, and although he continues to rub Uncle Phil the wrong way, he does manage to better himself as a result of being there, mostly through the influence and sage counsel of his aunt and uncle. Significantly, Uncle Phil represents a steady father figure that Will can look up to, and it is nice to see their relationship grow and change as the series progresses, even though Will's jovial/mischevious nature usually turns his interaction with Uncle Phil into jokes about his weight.
Will's cousins are quite an interesting lot. Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) is what Will calls an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) -- he's kind of a square, isn't very street-smart, and wears fashion that Will considers extremely stuffy. But he is popular at his school and knows how to conduct himself with important guests, something that intimidates Will, even though he'd never admit it. Hillary (Karyn Parsons) is a typical spoiled rich girl who is too busy getting a manicure and shopping for a new outfit to really notice anyone else. She's obsessed with the A-list ("Look! It's Cher's plastic surgeon!") and popularity, an easy target for Will. Little Ashley (Tatyana Ali) is probably the most down-to-earth of the bunch. She's a cutie and certainly is spoiled, but she also accepts Will with open arms and a lot of interest, bonding with him instantly.
The other family member is Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), their British butler. He keeps the house running well, and keeps the Bankses (and Will) sane and healthy. If not for him, the house and the people in it would certainly suffer, but he never complains about his workload or the sometimes erratic personalities of the people he cares for. As a Brit, Marcell plays Geoffrey with an unflappable dignity and strangely charming stiffness, refusing to call Will anything other than "Master William," despite his protests. Geoffrey is an excellent straight man for the emotional family, and the wealth of scenes in which he is a crucial player is no mistake.
It has been a long time since I've seen this show, and I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did when it was first on. It was Will Smith's first acting job, and the sitcoms of the late eighties and early nineties have a certain cheese factor that usually dates them unkindly. However, while the show is still firmly dated by its subject matter and you can clearly see how much Smith's craft has improved since those early days, the show itself is still as much of a gut-buster and all-out fun time now as it was then. What a delightful surprise!
Looking back on the first season of Fresh Prince, what stands out is the gradual shift from rapper-turned-actor novelty to a fully functioning ensemble sitcom that stands alone on its own merits. Early episodes include references to Smith's hits (at one point, Uncle Phil says, "Will, you'll have to learn that sometimes parents just don't understand!" at which point Will looks into the camera with an ironic smile on his face) and his music industry connections (appearances by Queen Latifah and Heavy D, to name a couple), but the later episodes of the season focus more on interactions with loved ones and the story of the Banks family. This is a correct and inevitable progression, given the talented actors involved in this series.
Will Smith can make me laugh just by saying "No" over and over, but other actors, like Alfonso Ribeiro, play their roles with a subtle humor that really works. Ribeiro plays a dork who is a sort of fish out of water himself -- not quite black enough for Will, but not white, either. It was a very different role for Ribeiro, who was considered a preteen hottie when he was on Silver Spoons. His singing and dancing skill only added to his appeal as a top Tiger Beat pin-up for all discerning young girls. (Yes, yes, I admit it -- my locker was covered with his face! It was those soulful eyes, so sue me!) For him to take on this role and do that horrifyingly funny little dork dance (replete with snapping fingers) took some guts, and audiences responded to it. He was so hilarious as a head-in-the-clouds square guy that he was soon stealing scenes right from under Smith (who seemed to recognize their onscreen comedy gold and work with it). As a performer, Smith already had a degree of confidence and comfort in front of the camera, but he needed to get his acting legs, so he benefitted by working with seasoned actors who knew how to work in front of a camera and who had excellent comedy timing, and this made the show strongly entertaining right from the first episode.
Predictibly, the show is dated by the time it was created in. Mostly, this is through the fashions Will wears (very loud, garishly matched colors that were all the rage), and the references to shows and celebrities that were popular at the time but aren't so well remembered now. (For example, Bo Jackson appears in a dream sequence talking about how Bo doesn't know something and needs Will's help, which recalls a Nike ad campaign that started with the catchphrase "Bo Knows Football" and morphed into Bo knowing a bunch of other things, as well). Still, while some jokes might go by the wayside, the fish-out-of-water story remains, and here is where we get the good laughs that endure the test of time. Very little, if any, value is lost by these occasional stones in the road.
Along with the 25 episodes from Season One, there is an entertaining if somehwat anemic 20-minute featurette about the series that focuses on Season One. Will Smith is conspicuously absent, but the featurette does feature interviews with James Avery (who is looking much thinner than in his days as Phillip Banks), Tatyana Ali, and Joseph Marcell. Debbie Allen, who directed most of the first-season episodes, also appears, along with some of the show's creators and crew. As a fan but not a devotee of the show, I found this featurette informative as well as entertaining (I liked learning about the genesis of the Hillary character and appreciated that they gave Alfonso Ribeiro a nod for talents that he didn't get much chance to show off in the series), but got the feeling that die-hard fans won't find any new material here. There was also quite a bit of fluff in the form of "I can't believe we got paid to have this much fun" sentiment. It's too bad Smith and Ribeiro could not have been involved for the official DVD release.
The audio and picture quality hold up pretty well, the picture especially. This is a very bright, colorful series, and this is communicated well by the transfer, which is clear and has good color depth. Refreshingly, there is very little in the way of image softness or edge blurring, which I have seen all too often in transfers in which there has been color processing or some sort of image enhancement to clean up the print for DVD release. The mono soundtrack is piped into a front-channel stereo feed that is clear but unremarkable. However, it does a decent job of showcasing the bombastic opening theme at least.
A note for die-hard fans: The original "long" credit sequence that appeared on the first few episodes in Season One has been preserved for this release. The longer credits feature an extra verse of the familiar "This is a story" rap by Smith that opens the show, and a scene of Smith packing his bags and lounging aboard an airplane on the way to Bel-Air. Later episodes featured a slightly trimmed version of this that jumped directly from Will's mom telling him that he was going to Bel-Air to Will arriving in the cab on the front drive of the Banks home. This latter version is what aired with all the syndicated shows, so the DVD may be the first opportunity for some fans to see the long version of the opening credits.
No chapter stops, a weak featurette as the lone extra, and no commentaries. Hello? Big-time missed opportunity with the commentary thing. I wonder how Will Smith feels about this show? He was not involved in the featurette, and the dearth of commentary speaks volumes about this release. I am disappointed by the seeming lack of prestige or focus this title has received. Although I'm not sure it would be considered a classic sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one of the more enduring and adored shows of its time, and it deserves better.
One thing that seemed slightly suspicious was the bebop instrumental versions of some of the popular tunes used in the series. At one point, Will is clearly dancing to "Vogue" by Madonna, but what is actually playing is a very close, but not authentic, instrumental version of the song. I don't remember if this was part of the original broacast or not, and I couldn't find reference to it in my research, but this might be a replaced bit of music. At another point, Ribeiro gets to show off a few dance moves (in a dream sequence in which he's a cool guy who gets the girl) and is dancing to a similarly almost-the-same version of "Smooth Criminal" by Michael Jackson. However, in another episode an M.C. Hammer song ("Can't Touch This") is left intact, so it's hard to tell. If there was replacement, it seems to work well for the series, since in each scene the music is either original Will Smith rap or used for comic effect only, and any changes are therefore largely incidental.
It's hard to pinpoint the funniest part of the first season. I'd like to say that it was the skit where Will blackmails Hillary into performing a series of humiliating actions at the dinner table, including barking like a dog whenever anyone says her name ("Hillary!" her father shouts in indignation, to which she replies, "Arf!" as if she can't help it) and praising him whenever Uncle Phil takes a drink ("Will Smith is the prince of the universe!"), but then what about the scene where Geoffrey starts dusting and pirouetting to classical music when he thinks he's all alone, only to be discovered by Will? I can't decide, but maybe that's a good thing. This is a series that is worth the money to check out, or to rediscover if you were a fan during the original run.
Now, this is a story all about how Judge Sandra watched a hip-hop show...and she liked it so much she just sat right there and said, "two thumbs up!" for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Review content copyright © 2005 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 587 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Back to Bel-Air: A Fresh Look" Featurette
* DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince Site