MUCH LIKE ITS lead actor, Will Smith, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" is a diamond in the rough. It drips with potential and could well become the breakout hit that NBC is counting on. But if it's not developed correctly, it might be this year's version of "Chicken Soup," last season's can't-miss show that missed.
Smith is playing himself in the series that premieres tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR). He has a rap act under the name Fresh Prince. And it is that character who, after getting into a bit of trouble in his native Philadelphia, is sent to live with a wealthy aunt, her lawyer husband and their three kids in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air.
We are not talking the most original concept here. Antecedents include "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Webster."
But Smith, as the Fresh Prince, is an original. If not the comedian brilliance, you sense the same sort of presence of the young Eddie Murphy, at once charged with energy, yet cool and relaxed. When he walks into a room, he takes charge of it without even trying. It just happens.
Indeed, the genuine antecedent to "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" was a show that launched another natural talent in prime time in a similar fish-out-of-water vehicle, Robin Williams in "Mork and Mindy."
And, just as with Williams in that show, in the hastily made pilot of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" Smith is surrounded by cardboard cutouts of characters. In their presence, his full-dimensionality makes him even more of a star.
The trick in this show -- indeed, the funny part -- is that although the family that Smith is sent to live with is black, they are really white. Or at least they come off that way. The father, played by James Avery, is a stuffed shirt rich attorney. The mother, played by Janet Hubert, likes fancy dinner parties. And their two older kids are a Valley girl working on a chic environmental project with Bruce and Demi, and a preppie who thinks "that Bryant Gumbel, he's really swell." They even have a butler, who is black, and insists on maintaining the appropriate formality of the servant/employee relationship.
Into this scene comes the rapping, def, streetwise Fresh Prince, ready with the high five and the low jive. He might as well be from Ork as from Philadelphia. The situation is hackneyed, but some of the jokes are pretty good. And with Smith's infectious personality working its magic, this first half-hour has more than dTC its share of laughs.
But unlike Robin Williams, Smith is not a genius of comedy. He is not going to be able to carry this show on his improvisational shoulders. If it doesn't improve on this pilot, then "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" will become stale in a few weeks.
But, the end of this first show, during which the father and Fresh Prince butt heads constantly, hints that there are better things to come. First, you see the father overhearing this young rapper picking out a little Mozart on the piano. Then Fresh Prince hangs up his poster of Malcolm X and learns that this square old guy once heard the militant black martyr speak.
These scenes raise the possibility that "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" could make significant statements about bridging seemingly unbridgeable gaps. It could deal with the price that black people pay to make it in a white dominated society while letting that society know that black America is a diverse and multi-layered group, something rarely portrayed in most mass media views of African-American culture.
Such themes would give substance to the comedy that will inevitably result from the talents of one of the freshest faces to pop up on television in a long time, placing Smith in an interesting arena that could work for years.
If it doesn't try to tackle such complexities, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" could become repetitive and predictable, setting up its cardboard supporting characters every week so that Smith can knock 'em down, not a def show, but one that's deaf to its potential.
"Fresh Prince of Bel Air"
*** A rapper from Philadelphia is sent west to mend his errant ways by living with his rich relatives in Los Angeles.
CAST: Will Smith, James Avery
TIME: Mondays at 8 o'clock
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)