No matter how big Will Smith gets, no matter how many hundreds of millions his movies rake in— the image that comes to mind when you hear his name is always a young Will at the Banks’ Bel-Air mansion, surrounded by his cousins. The mythology of the show is so powerful that it prevents Will from aging. Every time I see a recent photo of him, I’m surprised that he’s not still nineteen, wearing his Bel-Air Academy blazer inside out. The series is still relevant, still hilarious, and more iconic than ever. The recent release of Bel-Air Athletics sportswear collection proves that the show’s cultural currency has only increased and that it continues to speak to new generations.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The show may be anchored by Will Smith’s once-in-a-generation charisma— but the rest of the cast are no slouches. James Avery’s Uncle Phil was such a powerful father figure that he gave a young J. Cole something to aspire to. Will’s antics brought to light issues like racial profiling and representation (“Father Knows Best”) when they weren’t part of mainstream discussion. The class commentary is sophisticated and brutally honest, especially for a comedy.
The beauty of the show is how it balances darkness with levity (did anyone actually think Trevor’s death was tragic?). There are so many quality episodes that didn’t make the list that address serious subject matter: classism (“Geoffrey Cleans Up”), (“The Best Laid Plans”), bribery (“To Thine Own Self Be Blue…and Gold”), drugs (“Just Say Yo”). The show addresses a spectrum of issues that range from standard suburban teenager problems like bullying and peer pressure (“Not With My Cousin You Don’t” and “She Ain’t Heavy”) to much more nuanced societal problems like interracial marriage (see #5) and what it means to be a single mom (“Vying for Attention”). The show packs so much heart and manages to teach without feeling didactic.
The Fresh Prince’s greatest legacy is that it helped facilitate discourse about what it means to be a minority by making the issue a primetime one.
The cast of "Fresh Prince" takes a break from filming, October 1990 - Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
10. "BE MY BABY TONIGHT" SEASON 2, EPISODE 23
Anything with Will and Ashley is heart-warming. Their relationship is one of the most well-crafted bonds in the show and it shows a side of Will that complicates his womanizer image. When Ashley asks Will about , he freaks out because he can’t fathom his younger cousin coming into her own uality. Will says, “I want you to stop having these feelings. You don’t want to be that kind of girl.” Ashley replies, “You mean the kind that you like?” Ashley forces Will to confront his own hypocrisy when she reminds him that he never calls the girls who don’t get physical. Will has a short-lived moment of self-reckoning but the crux of the episode is more focused on what a healthy relationship looks like between parents and teenagers. Will tries to tell Ashley she should talk to her mom and Ashley says it’s too uncomfortable. But as the episode progresses, Will’s own inexperience deems him unfit to counsel Ashley. In the last scene, she sits down with her parents to have a frank discussion. Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv are the parents you wish you had not because they’re idealized and unrealistic and not because their lives are difficulty-free, but because they’re willing to undergo those difficult phases together.
9. "WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY (PART II)" SEASON 4, EPISODE 2
Caveat: I think I may be partial to this episode more for what it says symbolically than what happens in the episode itself. Will and Carlton are evicted from their apartment and Will tries to avoid moving back home. Even though Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil treat Will like a son, there’s a major difference between Will and his cousins. Carlton, Ashley, and Hilary always have a safety net. Hilary moves back into the pool house whenever she feels like it and Carlton moves back home immediately after getting evicted. He has the luxury of self-selecting out of the real world when it proves to be too inconvenient (“I’ll send Geoffrey for my things,” he says as he abandons Will). But Will’s stint in Bel-Air is a temporary visa. He knows he’s an interloper. In order to get back to Bel-Air and stay there, Will has to make his own way on his own terms and he has a hard time overcoming his pride and accepting help. Will is a tourist in a rich lifestyle and even though he can imagine that he’s part of that world by proxy, when he considers his future he’s forced to realize his reality is world’s different than that of his cousins’.
8. "YOU'VE GOT TO BE A FOOTBALL HERO" SEASON 4 EPISODE 12
The lesson in this episode is not particularly groundbreaking: don’t succumb to peer pressure and don’t drink and drive. But in typical Fresh Prince fashion, old is made new again. The conceit of the episode is a rendezvous with the departed. After drinking to excess and claiming that he is fine to drive, Will wakes up in a graveyard. He talks to three misguided ghosts who stand by their terrible, fatal decisions. He tells them they all died for stupid reasons then he realizes how close he was to a similar story. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is about a young man from the east coast coming to the west coast and trying to navigate a foreign environment. This setup is a microcosm of all coming-of-age experiences. Being young and trying to figure out what it means to be an adult and a good person in an inconsistent world is the most universal story. Mistakes are unavoidable and some lessons are harder to learn than others. The show is forgiving, but honest, about the missteps that occur on the way to maturity.
7. "WILL GETS COMMITTED" SEASON 3, EPISODE 2
When the family volunteers to go back to their old LA neighborhood, Uncle Phil takes a trip down memory lane and realizes he’s strayed from his roots. He hasn’t kept the promise he made to treat his community like family. The best scene is a flashback to the Banks as a young family, struggling to get by, but committed to their neighborhood and each other. Philip does pro bono work and Vivian tells Hilary that there is more to life than material things. The flashback ends with young Philip getting a call that likely means he is going to become a partner at a prestigious law firm and he reminds his family that a bigger paycheck will not change anything. The episode is incisive and bittersweet. It begs the question: How do you stick to your ideals and also get ahead? Are the two mutually exclusive? Uncle Phil’s self-reflection reveals the compounded sense of obligation that someone who came from humble beginnings experiences when they come into wild success. He recognizes that it’s morally irresponsible for him to blithely enjoy his riches when he remembers what it was like to be on the other side of the tracks.
6. "THE ETHNIC TIP" SEASON 1, EPISODE 17
This episode is so topical. Aunt Viv calls Will out for being the 90s version of a Ghandi-quotation-in-his-Instagram-bio, wannabe activist. When he’s struggling in her Black History course, he tries to defend himself by boasting that he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X three times. She fires back by telling him he can read the book, put up the poster, wear the tee shirt, and shout the slogans, “but unless you know all the history behind it, you’re trivializing the entire struggle.” Intellectual laziness is dangerous. Masquerading as a Social Justice Warrior for clout is dangerous. Aunt Viv reminds Will that rigor is required to sincerely call yourself an invested citizen and that the superficialities of a movement are smoke and mirrors. Posers abound. This episode will always be relevant.
5. "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO MARRY?" SEASON 2, EPISODE 6
Will’s Aunt Janice is getting married. To a white guy. His mother, Viola, does not support the marriage and makes her opinion known. What the conflict captures so realistically is how everyone is uncomfortable with their own discomfort. Vivian leans toward surprise and slight dismay rather than openly displaying her distress. Viola is the only one who immediately expresses her disapproval, “What the hell is Janice thinking?” Viola raised Janice and feels entitled to cast judgment even though the other two sisters outwardly support the marriage. Viola says, “I do not want my sister marrying that man.” Will replies, “Aunt J seems so happy…doesn’t she?” When he’s met with silence, he continues, “And that’s what we want for her…isn’t it?” Viola announces her refusal to support the wedding and lumps Will in with her. He argues that he is the best man, but she demands that he fall into line.
This could very easily become a trite, moralizing ‘racism is bad’ lesson— but the discussion is deft, tone sensitive, and multi-layered. An important distinction is made: Viola does not condemn the marriage because she disagrees with interracial relationships. Rather, she urges her sister to reconsider because she fears the hatred and disapproval that Janice and Frank will inevitably face from bigots. The episode also grapples with the question of what degree of allegiance Will owes to his mother, given the fact that he disagrees with her on a moral level. This is where The Fresh Prince excels and why it’s endured for such a long time. You could never level the accusation that this episode or issue is approached in a one-note manner—it covers tremendous ground in a short 24 minutes and it ends without saccharine resolution. Viola attends the wedding but it’s not with wholehearted endorsement, but the fact that she’s there is a testament to her devotion to her sister.
4. "MISTAKEN IDENTITY" SEASON 1, EPISODE 6
This episode explores the tension between giving people the benefit of the doubt and being a cynic. When Will and Carlton are arrested after being pulled over for driving too slowly in a Mercedes, Will tries to make Carlton see that driving too slowly has nothing to do with their arrest and everything to do with being Black in a nice car. Carlton refuses to accept that race had anything to do with their being pulled over. After Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv bail them out and Uncle Phil delivers a great monologue, Carlton still has his head in the sand. He asks his father, “Dad, if you were a police man, and you saw a car driving at two miles an hour, wouldn't you stop it?” Uncle Phil demurs and goes up to bed. Carlton insists to himself, “I would stop it.”
The desperation in his final statement is palpable and devastating. He wants to believe that life is fair, that Will is wrong, and that the events of the night were unmotivated by prejudice. At this point in Carlton’s youth, it’s an enormous ask to demand him to look beyond his wealth and his Bel-Air life. The world he knows is one of privilege and ostensible fairness. The first time I saw this episode I was frustrated with what I saw as Carlton’s naivete and ultimate delusion. But now I think it’s unforgiving to expect a sheltered teenager to confront something as hostile as racial profiling and accept that the system of values he is brought up to endorse (meritocracy, innocent until proven guilty) is a sham. Carlton clings to his last shreds of innocence and we can’t castigate him for averting his eyes from ugly reality.
3. "BLOOD IS THICKER THAN MUD" SEASON 4, EPISODE 8
The sellout episode. Will and Carlton are pledges in a Black fraternity and one of the brothers tells Carlton they won’t accept him because he’s a “prep school, Bel-Air bred sellout” who has a butler. Carlton defends himself eloquently and Will backs him. When they get home and explain what happened, Uncle Phil says, “When are we gonna stop doing this to each other?”
I never thought I’d say this, but Carlton is such a psychologically complex character. There were a number of additional Carlton-centric episodes that I wanted to include on this list like “Courting Disaster” and “PSAT Pstory,” but they weren’t top-ten worthy. Carlton doesn’t codeswitch quite the same way Will does, but he has to make his way in a high-achieving predominantly white milieu that always makes him doubt himself. Carlton constantly worries that he is inadequate when he is competing for entrance into the Ivy League world, which compounds the force of the blow he’s dealt when he’s told that his self-presentation and his vision of success is, writ large, demonstrative of selling out. The fraternity gatekeeper is telling Carlton that his Blackness is incompetent and grounds for dismissal. Self-loathing is a rarely discussed facet of racism, but it needs to become a more central part of the conversation.
Within the context of Will’s life, we get to see the type of struggles that someone extremely upwardly-mobile like Carlton experiences. The strength of the show is that it equally validates the growing pains a character like Carlton undergoes and does not diminish them simply because they are ‘first world problem’ types of distress.
2. "BULLETS OVER BEL-AIR" SEASON 5, EPISODE 15
This episode is hard to watch. Loss of innocence is a perennial sitcom theme and this might be the single best iteration in the genre. After Will and Carlton get held up and Will gets shot, Carlton’s fear leads him to buy a gun. Carlton’s faith in the legal system is shattered and he expresses a cynicism that is completely out of character. I see this episode as the other “Mistaken Identity” shoe dropping. It’s not the exact same issue because it’s not about race, but it’s the Götterdämmerung of Carlton’s innocence. One of the most painful moments is Uncle Phil’s failure to reassure Carlton, because there is no way to deny the truth of what Carlton has discovered: heinous crimes are committed and the perpetrators are not brought to justice. Will tries to joke about the incident but Carlton has no sense of humor. Even though Will’s wounds will heal, Carlton’s psyche is damaged in a permanent way.
1. "PAPA'S GOT A BRAND NEW EXCUSE" SEASON 4, EPISODE 24
There was only ever one choice for the top slot. In a time where all issues are so divisive it feels like a luxury to know all opinions are aligned on at least one thing. The best episode of The Fresh Prince is unequivocally the one where Lou comes back to break Will’s heart all over again. The pivotal scene when Will delivers that monologue is so raw it feels like theater.
It feels like a shame to dissect this episode because it’s way more than the sum of its parts, so I won’t. This is The Fresh Prince at its finest, doing what it did without fail for six seasons: providing insight into someone else’s unhappiness, insecurity, and weakness. It gave a sliver of understanding to the young women and men who are lucky enough to have fathers in their lives about what it feels like to be someone who doesn’t. The Fresh Prince promoted humanity. For that reason, it’s timeless.
How come he don’t want me, man?
This list skews heavy. There are so many entertaining episodes that got sidelined in favor of heartbreaking, moving, and serious episodes. Peruse the runner-up list: “M is for the Many Things She Gave Me”, “For Sale By Owner”, “The Butler’s Son Did It”, “The Butler Did It”, “Reality Bites”, “Eyes on the Prize”, “Ain’t No Business Like Show Business”, “Will Goes A Courtin’”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “The Ol’ Ball and Chain”, “The Young and the Restless”, “Deck the Halls”, “The Harder They Fall”, “Did the Earth Move For You?”, “Banks Shot.”