The Fresh Prince of Bel Air wasn’t just a funny sitcom with a catchy-intro. Will, Jeffrey and The Banks were apart of our family. And while every episode was full of laughs, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air got very real with real issues as well. Many issues that weren’t part of mainstream discussion. And it was all done by a family sitcom that balanced real, dark issues with a breath of lighthearted humor.
The Fresh Prince’s greatest legacy is that it helped facilitate discourse about what it means to be a minority by making the issue a primetime one. The Fresh Prince gave us nourishment for the soul and lessons to teach any of its viewers valuable lessons. It is a classic because the Fresh Prince of Bel Air got very real on issues such as racism, misogyny, sex, and more.
So we’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, and tell you the 13 times The Fresh Prince of Bel Air got very real.
Mistaken Identity | Season 1, Episode 6
Air date: October 15, 1990
Issue Addressed: Racism
Plot:While Philip and Vivian go on a trip to Palm Springs in Mr. Furth’s helicopter, Will and Carlton drive Furth’s Mercedes-Benz there as well. They get pulled over by a police officer (Hank Azaria) for “stealing” the car. Luckily, Will is able to get Philip’s attention by telling a phony confession on TV and he and Carlton are acquitted. This turns into an argument with Will about racial profiling, but when Philip recounts a similar experience, Carlton thinks it over with himself. Meanwhile, Hilary babysits Ashley and proves to be an unhealthy influence on the young girl when she gives her too much coffee.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse | Season 4, Episode 24
Air date: May 9, 1994
Issue Addressed: Absentee Fathers and Fathers who step in
Plot: Will’s father, Lou Smith (Ben Vereen), returns to his son’s life after 14 years. Will is very happy about the chance to reconnect with his father. However, Philip and Vivian (especially Philip) give him the cold shoulder, sensing that Lou has returned for his own selfish purposes and will most likely disappoint Will again. Will refuses to believe it and even gets into a heated argument with Philip. However, this proves to be true as Lou returns proclaiming he landed a new “job” that doesn’t afford room to take Will on a cross-country trip he’d promised. A heartbroken Will realizes that Philip is his surrogate father figure.
The Ethnic Tip | Season 1, Episode 17
Air date: January 14, 1991
Issue Addressed: Black History
Plot: Will proposes a black history class be instituted at Bel-Air Academy, and expects an easy A when Vivian volunteers to teach it. Many of the students enjoy her ways of teaching, except Will and Carlton when she gives them extra homework to do. At the end of the course, Vivian explains that she gave the two extra homework because as the only two black students in class she thought they’d get more from the course. When Will says he has read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, to which Vivian retorts there is more and unless he learns the full history behind the struggle for equal rights, then he all he has done is trivialize it. The show closes with a Malcolm X quote which reads: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs for those who prepare for it today.”
The Best Laid Plans | Season 3, Episode 17
Issue Addressed: Waiting for sex
Plot: Hattie comes over to the Banks’ place for a while. Everyone introduces Hattie to a neighbor, Mrs. Sweeting, who is very boring. That night, Vivian wants to have sex with Phil and bought a brand new nightgown, when he notices a note on the bed saying Hattie went over to play cards with the neighbor. Philip goes to check on her, but he is shocked when he spies on her and finds her kissing Ed, the handyman. The next night, they talk and they both realize that after a year of being a widow, it’s time for Hattie to start dating again. Meanwhile, Will and Carlton have a bet with Hilary and Ashley to see who can do something that the opposite gender can do better. Will and Carlton must sew a dress and Hilary and Ashley must build an exercise bike. The kids finish their bet and it ends in a draw for both as they both did a good job.
Guess Who’s Coming To Marry? | Season 2, Episode 6
Air date: October 14, 1991
Issue Addressed: Interracial Dating
Plot: Tensions spill over just before the wedding of Will’s Aunt Janice (Charlayne Woodard), when Will’s mom meets Janice’s intended husband, Frank (Diedrich Bader) who is a white man. Vy refuses to attend the interracial wedding and forbids Will to, but she is eventually convinced to go. Aunt Janice happily marries her fiancé.
You’ve Got To Be A Football Hero | Season 4, Episode 12
Air date: November 29, 1993
Issue Addressed: Drinking and Driving
Plot: When Will is challenged to a drinking contest by Jackie’s boyfriend, Hank Farley (Cylk Cozart), a popular college football player, he gets drunk, collapses in a cemetery on the way home, and is trapped in a mausoleum with four philosophical ghosts. He learns how foolish it can be to get so very drunk when he meets the ghost of a child killed by a drunk driver.
She Ain’t Heavy | Season 2, Episode 8
Air date: November 11, 1991
Issue Addressed: Fatophia/shaming
Plot: Will is getting tickets to a Lakers basketball game when Uncle Phil decides to give the other tickets to his boss’ daughter. Will hits it off with the full-figured friend named Dee Dee (Queen Latifah), but her size keeps Will from asking her to the dance. Though Will likes her, he takes the shallow way out as soon as his friends start teasing him. At a pizza place, his friends from the place and school make fun of her size, which Dee Dee hears it when she comes out of the washroom. She ignores Will for a while. He has a very boring date who talks too much, and so does Dee Dee. When he sees her at the dance with another guy, he sees more clearly that it’s what’s on the inside that counts more than the outside.
Just Say Yo | Season 3, Episode 19
Air date: February 15, 1993
Issue Addressed: Drug Use
Plot: While juggling basketball practice, education, home life, and his social life, Will is offered amphetamines, known as Speed, by a friend. After debating whether or not to use it, he doesn’t and stores the drugs in his locker. While at the prom, Carlton finds the drugs and, thinking it’s Vitamin E, takes the bottle, ending up in the hospital.
Blood Is Thicker Than Mud | Season 4, Episode 8
Air date: November 1, 1993
Issue Addressed: Hazing/Black Enough
Plot: Will and Carlton pledge Phi Beta Gamma, a black fraternity whose president Top Dog (Glenn Plummer) is a friend of Will’s. They are given humiliating tasks as part of their initiation, and Carlton is subjected to additional hazing (for instance being forced to eat a live trout while Will and the other pledges eat goldfish) due to the president’s personal prejudice against Carlton and his wealthy family, since he equates being black with being working class and from the ‘hood. Carlton accepts his hazing silently, earning the respect of many members, but the president still denies membership to him while accepting Will. Carlton then tells him off for his prejudice, Will refuses to join, and the other fraternity members oust the president for his biased attitude. When Phil is told about what happened, he wonders how being rich, something he worked for, is equated to being hated by their own kind.
Home Is Where the Heart Attack Is | Season 4, Episode 10
Air date: November 15, 1993
Issue Addressed: Eating Healthy
Plot: After struggling to lose weight, Philip has a serious heart attack while eating a cheeseburger that he bribes Will to buy for him. The entire family arrives at the hospital to help Philip get through this, except for Carlton. Will confronts Carlton to visit his father by telling the story of his own dead-beat father, reminding Carlton that he has a father who is there for his kids, and saying that he’s just being self-centered. Carlton eventually comes to comfort his father and reveals to him that he is just like Superman to him, and that he was frightened to watch his father suffer. Phillip, realizing how self-centered he had been acting as well, apologizes for letting him and his family down and pledges to take losing weight more seriously.
Bullets Over Bel-Air | Season 5, Episode 15
Air date: February 6, 1995
Issue Addressed: Gun Violence
Plot:While retracting some money from ATM for a night out, Will and Carlton are held at gunpoint by a robber – who ends up shooting Will. This event rocks the whole family to the core – especially Carlton, who feels that the justice system he depends on has failed, and in turn, he considers taking an extreme measure: buying a revolver. He visits Will in the hospital and says his peace. When the two of them hug, Will feels the revolver and reprimands Carlton over how foolish he’s being. He demands the gun from Carlton, citing that he saved his life and he owes him. Carlton silently relinquishes the firearm and Will ejects the bullets.
To Thine Own Self Be Blue… and Gold | Season 5, Episode 22
Air date: April 24, 1995
Issue Addressed: Bribery
Plot:Ernest (Charlie Robinson), an old college friend of Philip’s who owns an athletics company decides to visit the family and tries to persuade Will to give bribe money to a city councilman. Carlton and Hilary are matched together through online dating.
72 Hours | Season 1, Episode 23
Air date: March 11, 1991
Issue Addressed: Being Down Enough
Plot: Will makes a bet that Carlton wouldn’t last a weekend in Jazz’s neighborhood, Compton, because of the way he is. Carlton takes the bet too far by becoming very thug-like, wearing colorful clothing, shades, and bandanas (like Will), and Will has to find a way to stop him from going to MacArthur Park at night. He then rats on him to the parents, and they go to rescue him before going to the park. At the house, Carlton wins the bet, and the reason he won is because Will cared about him and didn’t want him to possibly die at the park that night.