12. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Air Dates: September 10, 1990–May 20, 1996
Stars: Will Smith, James Avery, Alfonso Ribiero, Karyn Parsons, Tatyana M. Ali, Janet Hubert-Whitten, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid, DJ Jazzy Jeff
In the fall of 1990, a skinny kid from West Philly decided to try his hand at acting. As rap's first Grammy award-winner, it couldn't be that hard, right? After making a name for himself as a hip-hop star in the '80s, a guy named Will Smith found himself in a bit of a financial bind. Consistent cash would fix that. Enter NBC, and an offer to star in a sitcom loosely based on his own life and that of co-producer Benny Medina, who, after growing up in a rough neighborhood, moved in with a wealthy family in Beverly Hills. You know this story.
You know it, because you know the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A kid gets into some neighborhood beef that scares his mother so badly she sends him to Cali to live with their wealthy family. There, our hero becomes Public Enemy No. 1 in the Banks' household, except in the eyes of his Aunt Viv and youngest cousin, Ashley. There's preppy cousin Carlton, with his fondness for Tom Jones. There's Uncle Phil, or the Honorable Judge Philip Banks. There's Geoffrey, the wry butler. These are the characters you remember.
This is a moment you'll never forget: Will's biological father, Lou, reappears and tries to develop a relationship with his son. Uncle Phil has never respected Lou for abandoning Will and his mother, and doesn't want to see his nephew hurt again. When that happens, just as Phil predicted, the embrace between Will and his uncle goes down as one of the most heart-wrenching television moments of the 20th century. You watched Will Smith become an actor, the man who would grow to command millions.
During its six-season run on NBC, The French Prince of Bel-Air was a juggernaut. Viewers learned the theme song without trying. Smith even allowed "Summertime," his classic track recorded with DJ Jazzy Jeff, to fuel the show's popularity and vice versa. Hell, the legendary DJ landed a role on the show as Will's friend, the one whose undying love for Hilary got him regularly ejected from the Banks' residence.
Love for the ladies was a recurring theme, allowing Will to come across some of the baddest women of the time: Stacey Dash, Tyra Banks, Robin Givens, and Nia Long. Furthermore, the The Fresh Prince had a storied history of guest appearances that we chronicled right here.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the perfect complement and eventual successor to The Cosby Show, as it depicted an upper-class African-American family that wasn't out of touch with the realities of black America. It wasn't quite as funny as Martin, but it dealt with a broader range of subjects. That makes it one of the better television shows of all-time-period. -(JK)