Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Really great TV: Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Just as people my age in relation to people ten years older than us, might be completely unaware that Pierce Brosnam was the TV star of a show called Remmington Steele and Tom Hanks was once best known for a TV show called Bossom Buddies, I wonder if today's younger generation primarily knows Will Smith through his status as one of the world's most bankable movie stars, as opposed to the star of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

One would think that Will Smith has matured exponentially since he made Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but in truth, if you go back and watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air, you'll see that it's a pretty good show in fact. There are a couple moments where Will Smith tests himself as an actor, most notably the episode where his dad abandons him and he breaks down emotionally launching into a clearly forced tirade about how he doesn't need his father, before crying "how come he doesn't want me" and embracing his uncle. It's a tear-inducing moment. There's another episode where Will's carelessness in experimenting with speed leads to his cousin Carlton almost getting killed by the drugs. Will's speech where he confesses to his family what he's done is filled with the genuine tear-inducing emotion that TGIF shows like Full House and Step by Step tried and usually failed to induce in the last 2 minutes of every episode.

I also admire how Fresh Prince of Bel Air refuses to dumb down any of its characters to conform to sitcom stereotypes. Well, to be fair, it dumbs down Hillary and Geoffery rather significantly, but the show does a good job at debunking the stereotypes it pigeonholes Carlton in at first. There's the one episode, played for absurdity, where Carlton bets Will that he can't survive a day in the hood. Within a mere matter of hours, Carlton has transformed into someone straight out of a Spike Lee film. Within a more intermediate framework, Carlton is gradually made more likeable as the series progresses and a genuine respect and friendship develops between Will and Carlton that is somewhat at the core of the series.

Most importantly, the portly Uncle Phil, could easily have been portrayed as the stuffy and aloof parent-figure for a couple of laughs but he is virtually never portrayed in an undignified manner. Despite the fact that he's the butt of Will's jokes, there is nothing he does that makes one feel ashamed to have known him or to be his child or nephew. I can't overemphasize how big of a deal that is. Most dads are portrayed as the less competent and less dedicated parent in sitcoms. They are either:
-Obsessed with trying to have sex with mommy (Step by Step),
-They border on being legally retarded (Family Guy, The Simpsons)
-They are bigoted (All in the Family, Sanford and Son),
-They are hopelessly dorky (Full House, Dick Van Dyke Show)
-They are irresponsible monetarily and with everything else and need mommy around to keep her from destroying the house if she leaves for a weekend (Malcolm in the Middle, Home Improvement)
-They can barely remember their kids exist (Everybody Loves Raymond, Just Shoot Me)

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