by Nicole Rees-Williams
Many sitcoms from our childhood have recently come under fire for their problematic content. Jokes that were acceptable in the late 90’s and early 00’s often qualify as unacceptable in our current age. One sitcom that stands the test of time, however, is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
I had seen the odd Fresh Prince episode throughout my life, but last year was the first time I decided to watch the series from start to finish. I was so surprised by how relevant and boundary-breaking the conversations in many of the episodes were. When discussing whether The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is still fresh, two episodes immediately come to mind.
Season 1, Episode 6 – Mistaken Identity
In this episode Mr. Furth, a family friend of the Banks’, offers his Mercedes to Will and Carlton to drive to Palm Springs. On the journey, though, the boys get pulled over. Will and Carlton’s reaction to this situation is wholly different. When asked for their vehicle registration, Carlton innocently admits that this is not their car. Will, however, recognises the danger of this situation.
Will: “Get out of the car, Carlton.”
Will: “He’s gonna’ tell us to get out of the car.”
Carlton: “You watch too much TV, Will!”
Officer: “Get out of the car.”
After so many real-life incidents when getting pulled over by police ended in tragedy for black people, (Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Keith Scott to name a few,) this situation could not be more threatening.
The boys get arrested, locked up and aren’t given the opportunity to contact their parents or a lawyer. It’s hard to believe that this kind of treatment would have happened if the driver and passenger were white men, and this is where Carlton’s faith in the legal system begins to crumble. With a previously sheltered Bel-Air upbringing, Carlton is brought face to face with the harsh reality for many black individuals.
The show’s decision to tackle issues such as racially charged police misconduct as early on as Season 1, Episode 6 is ground-breaking for prime-time TV in the 90’s. Sitcoms are where people turn for comfort and easy-watching. Challenging its viewers and bringing the heart-breaking reality of racial prejudice to the forefront of our viewing habits is a very needed decision that today’s sitcoms still need to catch up on.
Season 5, Episode 15 – Bullets Over Bel-Air
In this episode, Will and Carlton are taking money out of an ATM machine when they get held at gunpoint. The perpetrator fires, and in an attempt to protect his cousin Will covers Carlton and gets shot. Carlton, having never experienced gun violence like this becomes very unsettled.
Will: “C’mon man, you gotta’ have a sense of humour about this. This kind of stuff happens all the time!”
Carlton: “That’s the problem. It happens all the time.”
After the incident, Carlton purchases a gun as he no longer feels safe around his peers and decides he needs a weapon to protect himself. This episode displays the connection between gun violence only leading on to cause more gun violence. Carlton witnessed a shooting, and in turn bought a gun that could lead him to shoot somebody in the future. If the initial attack had never happened, Carlton would have never felt the need to purchase a weapon. The legalisation of firearms in the United States is an ongoing discussion that’s still occurring today and bringing this conversation to light on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a very forward-thinking decision.
After watching these episodes, I felt a sense of disappointment in society. These issues were prominent enough in the 90’s to centre entire episodes on them, but these types of misconduct still occur today. Though certain sitcoms do make an effort to address these issues (e.g. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Episode ‘Moo Moo,’) society still needs to do better in terms of important messaging in mainstream media. If an almost 20-year-old prime-time NBC sitcom can address these issues and still receive praise all these years later, there is really no excuse for today’s sitcoms not to use their platform to spread awareness.
As well as these two episodes there are plenty more that deal with some heavy issues. In Season 3, the episode ‘Just Say Yo’ shows Carlton overdosing after using drugs for the first time. In Season 4, the episode ‘Blood is Thicker than Mud’ shows Will and Carlton trying to get into the same college fraternity, only for the group to decide Carlton is not ‘black enough.’ And, of course, in Season 4, the episode ‘Papa’s Got a Brand-New Excuse’ shows Will’s father leaving him once again after being absent for most of his life.
It is certainly fair to say that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stands the test of time, as it held conversations in the 1990’s that are just as relevant today.