“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”

By Jae-Ha Kim
Amazon.com
September 2, 2006

The fourth season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (which aired on television for six years) finds Will (Will Smith) and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) as college freshmen trying to fit in on campus. Carlton’s mom, Vivian, who was played by Janet Hubert-Whitten, is now portrayed by the attractive but not-as-funny Daphne Maxwell Reid. And supermodel Tyra Banks shows up as Will’s latest girlfriend, Jackie.

While not quite as strong as the series’ first two years, this fourth season–which aired from 1993 to 1994–still packs plenty of laughs. Smith, who at the time was busily parlaying his TV success into a film career, had not yet become a huge movie star. His charm and likeability were more important at this time than his acting skills, but Smith’s charisma is undeniable.

Whether he’s manipulating his indulgent uncle Philip (James Avery), bossing around his bumbling cousin Carlton, or basically pimping out his other cousin Hilary (Karyn Parsons) to a professor in order to get a good grade, Will comes across as a good boy who does stupid things.

There is always a lesson learned and, just as often, a lesson forgotten. Though played for laughs, the series also deals with serious subject matters in an evenhanded way. After Philip is told to diet and exercise, Will thinks he’s doing his uncle a favor by sneaking him fatty meals. When Philip has a heart attack, Will has to deal with the consequences of what he did. Did he give Philip the snacks to make his uncle happy, or because it made him feel good to go against authority? When Will is accepted into a snooty African-American fraternity that rejects Carlton, he learns what it’s like to discriminate against your own people.

Some of the characters on The Fresh Prince by now have overstayed their welcome. Hilary has become a caricature of the spoiled and ineffectual rich girl. And as with many sitcoms based around their young stars, Philip and Vivian are superfluous add-ons now. But Carlton’s baby sister Ashley (Tatyana Ali), who is growing into a lovely young woman, exhibits spunky exuberance as she tackles the rituals of dating and trying to show her parents she’s not a little girl anymore. Ali also gets to show off her singing chops this season, tackling Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

As for the show’s celebrity guest stars (Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner), it’s Smith’s former rapping partner DJ Jazzy Jeff who makes the most refreshing appearance as (what else?) Will’s buddy from back in the day.

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