6 Seasons (1990-1996)
The show was simply to be an urban update of the Beverly Hillbilies. In fact, early promos featured Buddy Epson and Will Smith.
Up until this point, Smith was best known for his short-lived rap career and his fall into pop culture obscurity.
The show's premise is summed up nicely in the opening theme:
Will is sent to live with the Banks family in Bel Air. He brings a cool, urban vibe that shakes up this uptight family. Shows like this are a dime a dozen. And there are a lot of over-simplified TV tropes in that first season: the spoiled rich girl, the British butler, the overbearing father figure, etc.
But the show is saved from obscurity first by James Avery as Philip Banks. With all of the broad humor in the show, even from Uncle Phil himself, he was a wonderful center of gravitas. Instead of making him a sell-out caricature, Phil was a 3-dimensional figure. You saw in him a man who worked hard to achieve the success he has and tries to instill that ethic in his children (and Will). The pilot wisely let us see this side of him with his final speech.
It was also on this show that Will Smith learned to be an actor. It actually quite incredible to watch him learn as he goes. He reaches great comedic and emotional depths.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air also was famous for its "very special episodes." And while this can sometimes get tedious, the showcase of dramatic acting was riveting.
"Mistaken Identity" (1x06)
This episode stuck with me a long time after I watched it. First of all, it is hilarious. Will and Carlton are driving a neighbors car to Palm Springs for him and are pulled over. The jokes fly fast and furious. Particularly, the singing inmate still gets me.
The jokes keep going through to the last scene with Carlton insisting that this would never happen again if he had a road map. But Uncle Phil brings the gravitas as he gets the boys out of jail.
This was the show working on all cylinders. It also fleshed out the characters and the tensions between them. Will is a cynic about the world and Carlton is an optimist. The big difference is that Carlton has been surrounded by kind and supportive people of all races that he can't comprehend real bigotry when he encounters it. You can hear the sadness in Phil's voice at the end when Carlton asks him if he would pull over a car going to slow. Phil responds, "I asked myself the same question the first time I was pulled over." Phil wants his son to think the best of people and be innocent. But he has experienced the ugliness of the world first hand. This is also the episode where Carlton stops being a rich, snob stereotype. Alfonso Ribiero is finally given something more to do with his character than be the butt of Will's jokes.
What makes this episode so great is not that it is preachy. But that it so effectively delivers the drama because it brings your guard down with some incredibly funny writing. When you're laughing, you aren't prepared for the power of the drama.
"Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse" (4x24)
Will's father returns. At first he is reluctant to reconnect to the father that abandoned him. But as the two get closer, Phil can see the bad influence that he is having. This is where Phil is torn because he is NOT Will's father and he has to let him go. And Will is also torn between his real father and the man who has been his father.
It all comes to a head with the best moment of the entire series. It sums up so much of Will and Phil and their relationship.
JUMP THE SHARK
"Where There's a Will There's a Way pt 1" (4x01)
Once Will and Carlton go off to college, the show lost a lot of its magic. Granted, its best episode takes place at the end of this season, much of the show's greatness had been lost. This episode replaced the main actress to play aunt Viv. It also had a horrible story involving the death of Hillary's fiancé. And it took the leads out of high school and tried to make the stories at college more interesting, which they were not. The show continued on for 3 full seasons, but it ended strong with a decent finale.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was another show that started with modest goals, but then it transcended its beginnings. It was never able to shake its completely broad comedy. But if it had, it would have let this already great show soar higher.