Producer Quincy Jones took lemons and turned them into lemonade with "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." And, given the troubling history of how African-Americans have been depicted in prime-time sitcoms, that is an accomplishment worth noting as the show takes its final bow in this week of season finales.
No, it's not the last episode of "M*A*S*H," "Cheers" or "The Cosby Show," with all the attendant appreciations and hoopla that such finales generate. But, in part, that's because "Fresh Prince" was not your father's favorite sitcom.
It was, though, probably the favorite of your teen-age son or daughter. The series, starring Will Smith, debuted in 1990, and within a year was the second most popular network show with teen viewers, just behind "Beverly Hills, 90210," according to A.C. Nielsen.
By 1993, "Fresh Prince" became the No. 1 network show with African-American viewers of all ages in Baltimore and No. 2 with African-Americans nationwide. So strong was its pull with African-Americans that for several seasons "Blossom," an all-white sitcom about a teen-age girl, finished in the Top 10 with black viewers partly because it aired after "Fresh Prince" Monday nights on NBC.
But there is a reason beyond the weekly audience of some 20 million viewers that makes "Fresh Prince" worth a moment of reflection on the eve of its final telecast tomorrow night at 8 on NBC.
For years, actors and producers such as Charles Dutton of "Roc" have complained that in the predominantly white television industry networks want only broad and cartoonish black sitcom characters.
"All they want is yuk-yuk-yuk," as Dutton put it in reflecting on his endless battles at Fox to make "Roc" more relevant. "It's a constant struggle to take a character anywhere beyond that."
In "Fresh Prince," Jones managed to take some of his characters further, just as Dutton did in "Roc" and Bill Cosby did in "The Cosby Show." That evolution is evident in the views of the show taken by two experts on American television.
Start with the show's description by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows 1946-Present."
"A black rapper from a tough neighborhood found himself deposited in a cartoonish sitcom in this rather funky comedy co-produced by musician Quincy Jones," Marsh and Brooks write. "Will was the kid from West Philadelphia who was sent west to live with wealthy relatives in Bel Air, California, when things got a little too dangerous in the 'hood."
Then listen to the way Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park who teaches a course titled "Television and Ethnicity," sees "Fresh Prince."
"Well, it did kind of start out that way," she says. "I mean, in the beginning, Will is almost buffoonish. He really is this silly guy from West Philly who lands into this really snotty and not very funny family. But, as the characters and the show matured over the years, it became far more meaningful. And, the last couple of years in particular, it was a show that often had important things to say that were worth thinking about on a variety of levels."
For example, Parks points out that prime-time network television was filled with "happy families" in the 1980s and into the 1990s -- the Keatons on "Family Ties," the Huxtables on "The Cosby Show," the Tanners on "Full House."
The Banks' family -- the uncle, aunt and cousins Will went to live with in Bel Air -- is one of the "last happy families from that era left on network television," Parks says, noting that some of the show's best moments involved explorations of family relationships. She cites an episode in which Will's biological father (played by Ben Vereen) came back into Will's life only to abandon him again just as Will started to trust the man.
Tomorrow night's finale has a similarly dramatic and touching moment near the end of the hour dealing with the notion of fatherhood and the bond that has formed between Will and his uncle, Philip (James Avery).
Indeed, the growth and development of the Philip Banks character is emblematic of the maturation of the show.
Initially, Uncle Philip was set up to to be a target for easy laughs. As Brooks and Marsh put it, "To groovin' Will, Uncle Philip and his stuck-up clan at first seemed like a travesty on upwardly mobile blacks. They lived in a preposterously ornate mansion, spoke in oh-so-refined language and even had a liveried butler, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell)."
Mocking members of any group for their aspirations -- whether it is a waitress like Diane Chambers working in "Cheers" who wants to pursue graduate studies or an African-American attorney living in Bel Air like Philip Banks -- is serious business. One of the messages some minorities are likely to get from such symbolic dramatizations is that it is best to "know your place" and not try to move beyond it.
That's the dynamic at play in 19th-century minstrel shows, which mocked blackface characters who tried to use refined language, according to Robert Toll, in his book, "Blacking Up." It is what Bill Cosby was talking about when he compared black sitcoms in the '90s to minstrel shows.
But that is only the way Philip Banks was initially constructed. As he evolved, dimensions of social class and racial awareness were added to the character, with Philip often telling Will in impassioned terms about the obstacles he overcame in moving from his working-class roots through law school and up to Bel Air, as well as the battles he and others fought in the civil rights arena. Despite all the sitcom silliness, Philip Banks, like Cliff Huxtable, became a character of considerable dignity.
Quincy Jones' show
And that growth can be clearly linked to the changes behind the scenes after Jones took control of the series from Susan and Andy Borowitz, the husband and wife writing team that had created "Fresh Prince" shortly after graduating from Harvard. By the end of the second season, it was Jones' show, with the Borowitzes going on to other projects, such as "Aliens in the Family," the sitcom which aired this spring on ABC.
Not that "Fresh Prince" was ever a stupid show. In fact, the concept that the Borowitzes came up with was exceedingly clever in a television sense. The "Fresh Prince" was "The Beverly Hillbillies" done in an urban black, rather than rural white, vernacular.
It starts with the opening bars of the shows' theme songs. For "The Beverly Hillbillies," it is bluegrass and, "Let me tell you all a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed." For "Fresh Prince," it's rap beat and, "Now this is the story all about how my life got twist-turned upside down/Now I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there and I'll tell you all about how I became the Prince of Bel Air."
The transformation chronicled in the songs -- from poverty to wealth in the promised land of California -- is the same, too, as is the ideological message of America as a land of opportunity where everyone can live the good life with a little bit of luck.
But Jed Clampett, Jethro, Granny, Elly May, Mr. Drysdale and Jane Hathaway never grew beyond the level of cartoon stereotype in the "Hillbillies," whereas both Philip and Will grew in "Fresh Prince" under Jones' direction.
That is what tomorrow night's finale is all about. Everybody in the Banks' household is heading into a major life passage. Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) prepares to leave for Princeton, while Hilary (Karyn Parsons) and Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali) are going to New York for jobs and school. Geoffrey is returning to England to be with his son. Feeling the "empty nest" blues, Uncle Philip and Aunt Vivian (Daphne Maxwell Reid) announce on his 50th birthday that they are going to sell the house and move back East. The only one who doesn't seem ready to move on is Will.
There are some cleverly funny moments, like the postmodern playfulness of having Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) and Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) from "Diff'rent Strokes" show up as prospective buyers of the Banks' home, only to be followed by George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) from "The Jeffersons."
But the power of the hour comes from Will's struggle to use what he's learned from Philip, continue his growth and make that most difficult passage to becoming a man. That's not bad work by a sitcom -- taking a hip-hop teen-ager with lots of attitude and almost no education and letting us watch him grow into college and then onto threshold of manhood.
Pub Date: 5/19/96