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.