The 18 best episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Ivan Radford | On 31, Dec 2016Reading time: 8 mins
Now, this is a story all about how, my life got flipped turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute just sit right there. I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.
If you’re already reciting that out loud, then The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air needs no introduction. One of the best sitcoms of the 1990s, it featured rising star Will Smith, it was exec produced by Quincy Jones and taught everyone the correct way to dance to Tom Jones.
Following Smith as he moved from the streets of West Philadelphia to live with his rich Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert-Whitten, later Daphne Maxwell Reid) and Uncle Phil (James Avery) in their Bel Air mansion, the set-up paved the way for culture clashes aplenty. That resulted in hilarious exchanges between Smith and the spoilt Hilary Banks (Karyn Parsons), the impressionable Ashley Banks (Tatyana M. Ali), the effervescently polite butler, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), and his indescribable cousin, Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro).
Over 25 years later, and the show looks even better, a charming mix of 90s nostalgia, admiration for Will Smith’s on-fire charisma and surprise at just how many serious issues and emotional character moments the show managed to pack into its 148 episodes.
With The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air now available on Netflix UK, we pick out 18 of our favourite episodes:
The Fresh Prince Project (Season 1, Episode 1)
A rare chance to see the opening theme tune in full, the very first episode of is quick to set up its central premise, from Will drumming “Back to Life” on the door to his shock at Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv having a butler. His introduction to Carlton makes the difference in height (and everything else) immediately clear. But it’s the heated debate between Phil and Will about roots and forgetting where you come from – “You have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall,” declares Phil. “I heard the brother speak.” – that shows this is a programme that won’t shy away from big issues. The big laughs are a bonus.
Mistaken Identity (Season 1, Episode 6)
Will and Carlton drive the car of Uncle Phil’s legal partner to Palm Springs for a weekend away. But within six minutes, they’ve been pulled over by the cops, a situation that raises questions of racial profiling with real wit. “I’m in Jail,” says Carlton on the phone to the partner’s drunk wife. “You got into Yale?” comes the reply. And later: “When you see a white guy in jail, you know he did something bad.”
Def Poet’s Society (Season 1, Episode 7)
Let’s talk about Geoffrey. Geoffrey Butler (yes, that is his full name) would grow to become one of the best things about the show, with Peckham’s own Joseph Marcell delivering catty, sassy lines whenever on screen with a plummy voice that never fails to amuse. In just its seventh episode, the series showed just how funny his deadpan schtick could be, after Will invents a poet called Rafael de la Ghetto to impress girls at a poetry class and G has to pretend to be him. All together now: “Cannons to the right of them! Cannon to the left of them!”
Kiss My Butler (Season 1, Episode 10)
For Geoffrey’s birthday, Will sets him up on a blind date with Helen (guest starring Naomi Campbell). Things proceed exactly as you’d expect, and not just on the dance floor.
Deck the Halls (Season 1, Episode 15)
“The 90s are going to be all about restraint,” says the designer in a local Christmas store. But when Will gets the chance to bring Christmas spirit to his Bel-Air home, he decks the halls in every light he can find, much to all the neighbours’ outrage. “They are threatening to burn frost in effigy,” announces Geoffrey. Eventually, though, everyone bonds over a shared love of Christmas commercials. John Lewis would begin their annual festive ad tradition years later.
72 Hours (Season 1, Episode 23)
Carlton accepts a bet to survive two days in Jazz’s tough LA neighbourhood, to prove he’s just as “black” as Will. Armed with his hip-hop flash cards, the fish-out-of-water comedy is brilliantly observed, only for Will to end up the one humiliated. “You treat me like some kind of idiot just ’cause I talk different,” argues Will. “Differently,” comes Carlton’s short reply. “You’ve got to face it,” he adds later. “You love me.” And so their bromance begins.
Did the Earth Move for You? (Season 2, Episode 1)
Uncle Phil gets tickets to the People’s Choice Awards, but the night is ruined when the family get caught in an earthquake. As Will and his girlfriend end up trapped in a closet, they found out more about each other at twice the normal speed, a surprisingly subtle (and funny) two-hander that forces both of them to grow up. “I don’t need you do to anything for me,” she snaps, getting out a can of food. “You can you open this for me?”
Boyz in the Woods (Season 3, Episode 8)
Almost an official sequel to Did the Earth Move for You?, Season 3 again puts its characters in a trapped environment, as Will, Carlton and Phil get stuck in a cave during a weekend camping trip. Phil and Will both get the chance to reveal new back-stories and anxieties to each other, including the grief of losing a father. Deep.
Winner Takes Off (Season 3, Episode 14)
Will and Carlton trick Geoffrey into thinking he’s won the lottery, prompting him to quit – and, when he finds out, work in a restaurant out of embarrassment. “You used my own ruse against me! How I admire you!” he laughs at the pranksters, before snapping in a fit of rage. The result is a tour de force for Marcell, who displays a huge range of emotions, all of them priceless.
Just Say Yo (Season 3, Episode 19)
Fresh Prince again manages to be both light and dark with a story that sees Carlton get high on pills at prom. Alfonso Ribeiro’s dancing – and we don’t just mean that one – has never been more impressive, but it’s the low-key apology from Will Smith later on, after a trip to hospital, that really sticks with you.
It’s Better to Have Loved and Lost It… (Season 4, Episode 5)
It only takes four seasons for Carlton to lose his virginity, but this is another Geoffrey gem, as we learn his secret history: that he was once an Olympic runner for England, who became the Shame of a Nation. “No one will care about any of this,” reassures Uncle Phil “They won’t?” asks Geoffrey. “Of course not, you’re a servant. Now get me some cake.”
Hex and the Single Guy (Season 4, Episode 7)
“Halloween,” says Will. “The only night of the year a black man can walk around with a mask on and not get arrested.” Naturally, Carlton dresses up as his idol: Macauley Culkin. What starts out like a normal episode, though, soon enters incredible territory, as the family visit a medium and Will ends up getting cursed. Everything unravels from there.
Blood is Thicker Than Mud (Season 4, Episode 8)
Fresh Prince isn’t a show you necessarily associate with maturity, but Season 4 highlights just how much Will and Carlton have grown over the years, as he and Will choose a frat house to pledge to. When Carlton is rejected from a black fraternity, Will stands up for him, only for Carlton to defend himself with a passionate speech. “Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be. It’s what I am,” he states. “I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles as you are, so why are you tripping me up?” He gets to show off some new dance moves too.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse (Season 4, Episode 24)
Season 4’s other moving highlight comes as Will is found by his estranged father, a reunion that builds to a sensational finale, as Smith goes off script to deliver a rant about growing up without needing a dad. The result will bring you to tears.
The Philadelphia Story (Season 4, Episode 26)
Hot on the heels of his father episode, Season 4 ends with Will going back to visit his mother in Philly. The only problem? Running away from that “one little fight” and moving to his aunty and uncle’s in Bel-Air has turned him into the legendary local coward. Proof that there’s still room for Will’s character to develop.
Bullets Over Bel-Air (Season 5, Episode 15)
If you thought Fresh Prince would move away from the serious issues in its later years, you’d be mistaken: Episode 15 of its fifth run sees Carlton and Will mugged, with Will shot, prompting Carlton to start carrying a gun to protect himself. “That’s not you, man,” explains Will, as the cyclical nature of gun crime . “That’s them.”
Eye, Tooth (Season 6, Episode 22)
With Hilary’s career as a talk show proving so successful that she’s about to move to New York, the show tops all of its previous cameos (Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson, Branford Marsalis – the list goes on) with William Shatner as himself, who ends up in a dental chair in one of the show’s most memorable scenes.
I, Done: Part 1 and 2 (Season 6, Episode 23 and 24)
The two-part conclusion to Season 6 sees the Banks children all prepare to leave him, with Phil planning to sell the house and Will lamenting his own lack of future plans, before deciding to stick with his studies. There are cardboard boxes and hugs aplenty, as the ensemble’s chemistry stays as strong as ever, with even G calling Master William “Will”. The final shots of the empty house are a surprisingly sweet, low-key farewell.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.