The Fresh Prince of Bel-air hardly needs a pilot to introduce its premise. It’s all right there in the theme song. C’mon, you know the words: “Now this is the story all about how/My life got flip-turned upside down…”
The pilot opens exactly where the intro leaves off, with the ridiculous-looking Fresh Prince, who we know today as alien-and-zombie-busting Will Smith, standing on the columned porch of his Uncle Phil’s giant house, fresh (no pun intended) from West Philadelphia. When the door is answered, Will mistakes the butler, Geoffrey, for his uncle. Has he never met this uncle before? But point taken–Will has never encountered the sort of wealth that employs “help” before.
The Fresh Prince debuted in 1990 but the 80s were still hanging around like a neon fog. The garish colors, the bad sweaters, and the shoulder pads–dear lord, the shoulder pads–are everywhere. The show goes to such lengths to contrast Will’s colorful, goofball ways with the austerity of Bel-air as to be ridiculous. Will can hardly get through a sentence without employing slang like “def” and “dope.” He’s claims to be “street,” as evidenced (I guess) by a Malcolm X poster in his room. But the contrast is more one of pop culture meets high culture than one of poverty meets wealth. Even if it is always sunny in Philadelphia, I just don’t see this cheerful, neon yellow-clad teenager busting a cap in anyone’s ass on its mean streets.
Members of the Banks family parade in one at a time, offering the audience a chance to digest each one. Uncle Phil (James Avery) is a no-nonsense lawyer who wears suits, apparently, just to hang around the house. Aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert Whitten) is gracious and warm. Oldest sibling Hilary (Karyn Parsons) breezes in demanding $300 for a new hat to wear on as Save-the-Ozone celebrity bus tour. Little sister Ashley (Tatyana Ali), clad in a private school uniform is sweet and adorable, and destined to be the only one Will can immediately connect with. (Total side note: Karyn Parsons and James Avery will be reunited on-screen this summer in the new Transformers movie.)
Carlton, played by Alfonso Ribiero is saved for last. He’s something of a vertically-challenged Ken doll, representing the polar opposite of Will. When Will looks into a mirror and imagines his reflection to resemble Carlton’s, a turning point in the episode is reached, and the show’s conflict introduced. Will will not let himself be turned into a Banks.
The rest of the episode revolves around a dinner party where Uncle Phil is entertaining colleagues. It’s suggested that he’s not such a bigshot as he wishes to be–it seems neighbor Ronald Regan has turned down his dinner invitation. Will takes the party by storm, donning the suit pants and jacket he was given in combination with the world’s most hideous tanktop and a hat that I’m pretty sure I got free with purchase at a Wendy’s in 1988. Although we’re supposed to be rooting for Will, it’s hard not to be embarrassed for him in a Michael Scott kind of way. Sparks fly, naturally, and Uncle Phil is furious.
The final scene takes a serious tone that one might expect from a “very special” episode. Will and Uncle Phil find some common ground in their admiration for Malcolm X and learn you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s kind of sweet, and sets us up for lots of complications to last four seasons. After which the show was cancelled. Before being picked back up for two more seasons. So as ridiculous as it seems, the show certainly found an audience. We have to wait until episode 2 to meet Jazzy Jeff, though.