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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was radical – because it was so ordinary

Fresh Prince's secret was that it was a comedy starring black people that wasn't about black people. 

If you want to understand why The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was so radical, you have to begin at the end.

The Banks family – the well-to-do family who host their street-smart cousin Will – are selling their home, the setting for six years of adventures. The would-be buyers are, inevitably for an American sitcom, all famous faces, including the casts of various other sitcoms: the Jackson twins from Diff’rent Strokes and the Jeffersons from The Jeffersons. (Clearly, the brainstorm session which led to the title of that particular show being chosen was not a taxing one.)

Like the cast of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Jackson twins and the Jeffersons are African-Americans. But the story of Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons, whether comic or tragic, depended on the race of its central characters. Diff’rent Strokes is about two black twins who are adopted into a white family – with hilarious consequences. The Jeffersons is about an affluent black family who move into a well-appointed majority white neighbourhood with, again, hilarious consequences, and is famous for being both the longest-running show starring an African-American and featuring the first mixed-race couple on American television.

The beauty of Fresh Prince is that it is the first sitcom in which the cast are majority-minority – but the show would work just as well with a white cast. The conflict in Fresh Prince is driven by class: the show’s protagonist, Will (played by Will Smith, his name presumably the result of another Jeffersons-style outbreak of creativity in the writers’ room) is forced to move from inner city Philadelphia to live with his middle-class aunt and uncle.

The rest of the family are run-of-the-mill sitcom tropes: the family patriarch Phil, who is only terrified of his formidable wife Vivian, the beautiful airhead older daughter Hillary, who eventually knuckles down and becomes a TV star, the cutesy youngest child, Ashley, the middle child, the only boy, Carlton, is the family nerd, and the snooty English butler Geoffrey.

Three things set Fresh Prince apart from other run-of-the-mill sitcoms: the quality of the scripts and the acting chops of the cast, and that these run-of-the-mill parts happened to be played by black people.

Without wishing to take away from Will Smith’s performance – Smith is one of those rare actors who never phones in a role, even in an absolute stinker like After Earth or Suicide Squad – he was very much playing a character that we’d seen on screen hundreds of times before: that of the street-smart black kid from the wrong part of town who turns his life around.

But Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell) was a role that had basically never been seen on screen being played by anyone other than a white Englishman. An equivalent comedy – a majority-minority sitcom in which their ethnicities were an afterthought, rather than the central point of the joke – wouldn’t be made in the United Kingdom until 2016’s Chewing Gum.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Will as a role model being on television but for most black people – indeed, for most people – Will’s story is not their story. Whether you’re a Hillary, an Ashley or a Carlton, the exciting thing about Fresh Prince is that there is someone like you.

And I expect that’s why Fresh Prince has endured while Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons have faded from memory – because it’s truly universal. 

This is part of the New Statesman's look back at classic sitcoms from the 90s. You can find our takes on why Only Fools and Horses meant so much to immigrant families here, and how Absolutely Fabulous is a reminder of pre-Brexit Britain here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear