It was 30 years ago… The Prince of Bel-Air, the series that made Will Smith a star

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We are in 1990: a certain Will Smith arrives on our screens, in Bel-Air and in the life of the Banks family.

What is the Prince of Bel-Air? Will Smith (himself) is a teenage boy who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When he is arrested for having tagged a wall, his mother is worried to see him fall into delinquency. To give him better chances in life, she sends him to Bel-Air, in the family of her uncle Philip Banks (James Avery), a successful lawyer. The young rapper from an underprivileged neighborhood discovers life in one of Los Angeles’ chicest residential areas, alongside these wealthy and snobbish parents he hardly knew existed. 

Some of us are going to get pretty old. In the 1990s, when we turned on the TV on Antenne 2 when we came home from school or college, we came across the series The Prince of Bel-Air  and we followed the adventures of a young rapper who found himself propelled into this very chic neighborhood of Los Angeles to live with the family of his maternal uncle. It is also thanks to this series that we had met a certain Will Smith, before he pursued his musical career and turned to the big screen, until he became the world star that the we know. 

But let’s start from the beginning. At the end of the 1980s, Jeffrey Allen Townes and Will Smith were two young rappers from Philadelphia; under the names of Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, they meet with some success with their sympathetic tracks with catchy melodies. NBC then had the idea of ​​a series vaguely inspired by the life of Will Smith, which tackled the project with its producer, the famous Quincy Jones. Launched in 1990, the series is a resounding success, in particular within the African-American community which welcomes it as the successor of The Cosby Show .

The story is simple: a dispirited young man from a difficult suburb of Philadelphia is sent to California to live with his maternal uncle’s family in the upscale Bel Air neighborhood. The dynamics of the series are mainly based on the contrast between Will and his parents. On the one hand, the rowdy teenage rap fan, with his cap upside down and his phrases punctuated by “Yo! », Grew up in a modest environment where he accumulated escapades. On the other hand, Uncle Philip, his wife and their children live in a large house in this upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles. Performed by Will Smith (with Quincy Jones in the role of the driver), the credits summarize the starting situation.

Will and the Banks, an unusual cohabitation

Banks and Will differ in their dress, language, behavior or cultural references, and the humor of the series is based primarily on this discrepancy. Will is impressed by the luxury in which the Banks live, but is also very ironic about their lifestyle which he considers superficial and disconnected from the realities he knows. The Banks, in their opulent house and frequenting the best bourgeois circles in the city, are perplexed in front of this dissipated young boy, whom they intend to put back on the right path by offering him a second opportunity. But gradually, Will will get used to this elitist environment and mature (well, slightly…) while the members of the family and Philip in particular will become aware of their privileged status and reconnect with their origins. Each of the characters will therefore evolve, grow thanks to the others.

If there is a social aspect this filigree throughout the series, no need to look far pm: The Prince of Bel Air is not intended to bring about a sociological or political, it’s nothing more than a comedy. That said without any condescension, because it is an excellent series which has delighted the public for six seasons with its episodes filled with gags, comic situations and misunderstandings, in the center of which we systematically find Will. Will Smith (the actor) who plays his first role here, immediately gives a glimpse of a raw talent. In fact, the series brought him fame, gained him worldwide popularity and gave him the opportunity to develop his game on the job, in a completely intuitive way. 

Will Smith in the eponymous role that launched his career

At first, The Prince of Bel-Air looks like a succession of skits and jokes. The scheme and the comedic springs are always the same, the series repeating them over and over again in the context of home or college. With his propensity to get into trouble, his nonconformity about the environment he’s been in and his taste for pranks, Will does something stupid, loses control of the situation, and he ends up doing it. because he’s smart, or because Uncle Phillip intervenes. The plot of the different episodes is always light, without controversy and in the tone of pure comedy, even if some sensitive subjects have been discussed – such as racism, the abandonment of Will by his father (a particularly moving episode) , drugs or alcohol.

While the build remains largely the same over the seasons, Will’s character evolves as his relationship with family calms down, becomes more tender, and as each takes a step toward the other, the bond and the affection replace the initial misunderstanding and mistrust. And this, even if Will always easily taunts the family – starting with his uncle Phillip (excellent James Avery). Authority figure, severe but able to show understanding and loving, he is especially ridiculed by his nephew for his overweight, but also for his gentrification.

Aunt Vivian was first played by Janet Hubert for the first three seasons. Due to disagreements with the writers and contract issues, she left the show and was replaced by Daphne Maxwell-Reid, with the substitution giving rise to no explanation in the story – other than a very funny scene. where Jazz is surprised at the change of look of the aunt before moving on.

Will’s favorite target, however, remains his cousin Carlton, a chic and posh young man, golden boy with his little cashmere sweater on his shoulders, who tends to take him down and consider him a little thug. Over the seasons, Will and his cousin will however become closer and even accomplices in all kinds of nonsense and misadventures. Carlton is the other go-to figure in the Prince of Bel Air: his interactions with Will result in some of the most hilarious scenes in the series, and the character is played beautifully by Alfonso Ribeiro. And then there is Carlton’s  dance  ” (above), a recurring and unavoidable sequence that can easily be described as cult and that no spectator will ever forget.

The other children in the family, the eldest Hilary (Karyn Parsons) and little Ashley (Tatyana M Ali) have more secondary roles. The first is a rather superficial spoiled girl, who interacts little with the hero; on the other hand, the youngest, mischievous kid, becomes like a little sister for Will, who takes her under his wing. Finally, two important figures complete the picture. First the butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell): drawn with four pins and with a so British accent, he intervenes regularly by launching a lapidary sentence that cuts short any discussion by suggesting that, despite all their efforts, the Banks remain a family of nouveau riche upstarts. Then Jazz, Will’s best friend,  

Building on its popularity in the United States, The Prince of Bel-Air has also hosted many prestigious guests such as Tom Jones, Dr Dre, the legendary BB King, Tyra Banks, William Shatner, Conrad Bain and Gary Colman (The Mr . Drummond and Arnold from Arnold and Willy ) or even animators Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey.

From 1995, Will Smith’s career really began to take off thanks to the Bad Boys and Independence Day films . Captured by his new cinematographic activities, the actor asks to leave the series but finally agrees to shoot a last season to properly conclude the story. The conclusion in question is as simple as it is obvious: the children have grown up, they are leaving the house and the parents are putting the mansion up for sale, while Will moves into a small apartment. The end is therefore nothing special, but it is logical and above all sweet and full of optimism since everyone continues the course of his life … And Will Smith, his career in the cinema – for our greatest pleasure.

Launched in 1990, The Prince of Bel-Air is a series that viewers generally refer to with affection and a smile on their face. With its simple and effective screenplay, its ubiquitous humor, its cult scenes and the sympathy capital of Will Smith, it also propelled the actor towards the career that will make him a mega star. No doubt those who watched the series at the time remember the dance of Carlton, the credits of the series or the acrobatic releases of Jazz… And we bet that the credits have a taste of madeleine of Proust to the tunes of rap . 

The Prince of Bel Air (NBC)
6 seasons – 148 episodes of approximately 25 ′.
Available on Netflix. 

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