6. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Debuts on NBC
Date: September 10, 1990
The Moment: The first prime time sitcom to star a rapper aired on NBC in September of 1990, produced by super-producer Quincy Jones, no less. That rapper? The 21-year-old Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith), and that show—about a kid from the West Philadelphia hood, sent to live with his well-off aunt and uncle in Bel-Air—was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And it opened, of course, with Will Smith rapping the show's theme song.
The Impact: The series debuted with a 13.6 rating, which was massive for a new show with a young, untested actor relatively new to television. If you were young, you loved it. Adults and critics, on the other hand, didn't love it, at least not at first. Three major complaints: (1) Will Smith's acting chops weren't quite there yet, (2) the deeper issues at play went untouched, and (3) as the New York Times put it, "It seems that a good many viewers may not necessarily like the idea of solid upper-middle-class citizens being turned into buffoons to be sneered at by a smart aleck."
By the start of the third season, Fresh Prince—being shown on Monday nights with Blossom—was the highest-rated sitcom among the highly-coveted teenage demographic. And Will Smith, who had almost gone bankrupt by the time the show aired due to reckless spending of record deal money and an IRS debt, was restored to a decent degree of financial health. It also was the beginning of the acting career that came to define so much of Smith's reputation.
The Upshot: The writers continued to shift the balance between comedy and drama for the rest of the show's run. For more than five years and six seasons of television, Fresh Prince challenged ideas about class differences, race, comedy, hip-hop's place in the contemporary African-American landscape, and beyond that, '90s American landscape.
The show, which became one of the most widely syndicated sitcoms in television history, transformed Will Smith from a rap star into a pop culture star, as he started to take dramatic film roles (Six Degrees of Separation) and blockbuster action roles (Independence Day, Men in Black). The theme song remains one of the greatest and most recognizable theme songs in all of television, and during the late '90s, he resumed a wildly successful rapping career.
Another sign that the show had an impact: Almost all of the show's stars who weren't Will Smith were never be able to completely divorce themselves from their roles on Fresh Prince. Word to Carlton.