'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' checks out life of luxury


"Fresh Prince of Bel Air" is the urban version of the "Beverly Hillbillies" fantasy: poor folks suddenly living in the lap of luxury.

The show, which stars rap artist Will Smith as an inner city teen sent to live with wealthy relatives in Bel Air, even has an opening song like "Beverly Hillbillies" that lays out the show's premise before the credits have ended.

Instead of a banjo and "Let me tell you all a story about a man named Jed ...," NBC's show opens tonight at 8 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) with a rap number. "Ifyou'll just sit right there/I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air," Smith chants. "I got in one little fight, and my mom got scared/She said you're movin' in with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air."

Smith shows up at the mansion-like home of his relatives with a hip-hop sensibility, a street-rap vocabulary, sneakers and baseball cap with the brim turned up. When his uncle's butler calls him "Master William," he says, "Yo, what are you, Robo-butler? This Master William stuff makes it sound like you're back on the plantation."

The humor comes from the clash of cultures and world views -- urban poor vs. suburban upper class -- that ensues. Will Smith (the name of both the character and the actor who plays him) tells a law partner of his Uncle Phillip (James Avery) that he's going to attend the Bel Air Academy. "Oh, Bel Air," the lawyer says, "I fenced there." Smith says, "Fenced, huh? How much youthink we can get for this stereo?" That kind of culture clash.

"Fresh Prince" is a fascinating piece of sociology. For one thing, much of the humor relies on references to other television shows. There are big laughs (on the laugh track, anyway) when Smith calls the butler "Benson." Smith says his hero is Macolm X, and his preppy cousin, Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) says his are "my dad and Bryant Gumbel -- I think he's darn good." It's television as its own frame of reference -- another indication of a popular culture increasingly dominated by television for shared values and memories.

Is it funny? Generally. Does it have heart? Almost. Smith is likable character and actor. When he's in a scene with an actor of Avery's stature, connections are made and emotions are evoked.

Whether "Fresh Prince" ultimately rises or falls depends on how it connects with the audience's enduring fantasy of poor folks suddenly finding themselves living high on the hog. It's off to a promising start.

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