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'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air': A tribute to the series that launched Will Smith

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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 obsessed with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Really, seriously obsessed. And, strangely enough, not until recently. Sure, I caught the show every once in awhile in the 1990s. But I never fully appreciated it until I was much older – and aware about Will Smith’s status as a superstar.

Prior to revisiting Fresh Prince a few years back, thanks to those TBS reruns, I never could call myself a fan of the multi-camera sitcom. Most series in the genre were dated, predictable, and less funny than Hillary’s boyfriend Trevor. So when I flipped on a rerun of Fresh Prince a few years back, I was surprised how much Fresh Prince distanced itself from other sitcoms of its era. The wardrobe might have represented the worst of the ’90s, but the series still felt, well, fresh. The show took risks, going bluer than most sitcoms aimed at a family-friendly audience. And, most importantly, it was knock-down, drag-out funny.

Of course, most of the credit can be given to its star, Will Smith. Even in his early days as an actor, the multi-hyphenate lit up the screen, commanding it better than co-stars with years more experience. Tuning into Fresh Prince, it was clear the young actor would soon be inviting cheers at your local theater punching aliens. But part of what made Smith so impressive – and so darn likable – was his ability to share the wealth on-screen. Yes, he stole every single Fresh Prince episode. And, yes, the series would be lost without him. But Smith allowed Fresh Prince to be an ensemble show, even when it was clear he was its true star. The show wouldn’t be complete without James Avery’s Philip Banks, a foil who showed us exasperation at its finest. Or Janet Hubert and Daphne Reid’s Vivian Banks (Hubert left the show after three years), the straight woman who could still keep up with her wise-guy nephew; Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, the Veruca Salt-esque spoiled cousin with a heart of gold – because that’s all she loved; Tatyana Ali’s Ashley Banks, the adolescent cousin who adored Will and served as proof that Smith could cater towards a family-friendly demographic; Joseph Marcell’s Geoffrey, the hospitable butler who evened out Will’s manic ways with quiet hostility; and, of course, Alfonso Ribeiro’s Carlton Banks, a character so outlandish, everyone could mimic “The Carlton Dance” to this day.

The series was so fresh and so smart, it’s no wonder several high-profile guest stars stopped by the Banks mansion throughout its run: Fresh Prince boasted appearances from the likes of Tyra Banks, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Queen Latifah, and Dick Clark. But the series hardly needed big names to succeed. Actually, I always preferred the episodes that would focus squarely on the Banks family and Will’s hijinks. Think “Talking Turkey” (the first Thanksgiving episode), “Burnin’ Down the House” (in which Will accidentally destroys the Banks kitchen), and “Strip-Tease For Two,” when Carlton and Will unintentionally become the dancers for a party involving Aunt Vivian. The Banks were a glamorous family with big hearts and hearty humor – who wouldn’t want to join in with their shenanigans? And give Smith millions and millions of dollars to headline Hollywood’s most profitable films?

But now I turn things over to you, PopWatchers. What are you favorite memories involving the Banks family? And, with the exception of Will, who was your favorite Fresh Prince character?

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Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW

Originally posted August 29 2011 — 5:07 PM EDT

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