As one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 1990s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air represented a unique new type of entertainment, embracing all aspects of Black culture and offering insightful commentary along with pitch-perfect humor. It gave Will Smith his first real acting platform, elevating him to a superstar far beyond his musical career.
It also made a series of iconic characters in the form of Alfonso Ribeiro's Carlton Banks; James Avery's Uncle Phil; the original Aunt Vivian in Janet Hubert; the sage and mischievous butler, Geoffrey, as portrayed by Joseph Marcell; and Will's best friend and partner in crime, Jazz, portrayed by DJ Jazzy Jeff himself. Even nearly thirty years after the series first aired, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's episodes are often just as timely and relevant as ever—and some of them are just as bad as they once were, too.
10 Worst: "The Client"
Long before Disney Channel was turning its television show stars into singers, Fresh Prince tried to do something similar—within the series, at least—with the youngest Banks child, Ashley. The fifth season introduces a very short storyline where Ashley becomes a quasi-viral music sensation almost overnight, thanks to Will's hustle and her natural talent.
But the second episode in this two-episode arc finds Ashley's short-lived fame going to her head. She begins to treat all of her family members in incredibly cruel ways, but soon enough, her 15 minutes of fame are over.
9 Best: "Just Say Yo"
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air embraced the sitcom convention of Very Special Episodes just as much as most '80s and '90s family-oriented sitcoms did, but somehow, Fresh Prince's episodes always felt much more real and important. This third season episode is one such example of that fact. Feeling run down with prom approaching, school, basketball, his relationship, and his job, Will takes up a fellow student on his offer of speed.
Before he can take anything, however, he stashes the pills away in his locker. In the end, his cousin, Carlton, mistakes the pills for vitamin supplements and, hoping to cure an acne issue, quickly pops far too many of the speed pills, overdoses, passes out at prom, and winds up in the hospital. It's a truly shocking moment for the series and highlights a very real threat facing high schoolers everywhere.
8 Worst: "Will's Up A Dirt Road"
The series never offers any sort of definitive career path for Will. He has multiple jobs throughout the series, working in restaurants and student unions, managing music careers, and, in this truly baffling fifth season episode, serving as a paparazzi photographer. In a poorly thought-out attempt at impressing Lisa, Will decides he's going to write a book, consisting primarily of photos of celebrities that he himself takes.
A tabloid expresses interest in purchasing some of Will's photos, but once they've purchased a photo of Jay Leno pouring coffee outside his house, they spin it into portraying Leno as a polluter who's pouring oil instead. Will winds up being sued by Leno, finagles his way onto Leno's show to apologize, and then... nothing else ever comes of this almost fever dream-like escapade.
7 Best: "Eye, Tooth"
It's not often that a sitcom can keep its fastball almost all the way through its very last episodes. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one of those few sitcoms that manages to do just that. The series' third-to-last episode is arguably one of the most over-the-top episodes in the series. But despite how zany and improbable the central adventure may be, the episode nevertheless stands out as one of the series' strongest.
William Shatner appears in the episode as a guest on The Hilary Show, and Will is tasked with keeping Shatner entertained—and away from Star Trek superfan Carlton. Of course, none of that goes as planned, and Shatner winds up needing some urgent dental work. But the highlight of the episode occurs in the dentist's office when all three men wind up getting high on laughing gas.
6 Worst: "Will's Misery"
It was only a matter of time before Fresh Prince introduced a serious, long-term relationship for perennial ladies' man Will. But it made a real mistake when it introduced Nia Long's Lisa, arguably one of the weakest characters in the entire series. Lisa's introduction certainly didn't help make her character any more likable, no matter what came next.
This fifth season episode features Will finally convincing Lisa to go out with him, but what follows is an elaborate, confusing, and downright uncomfortable storyline where Will allows Lisa to treat him like a hostage in a tribute to Misery so that she can gain acceptance into an elite sorority. The only worthwhile part of this episode comes in the form of Alfonso Ribeiro's hysterical blooper at the very end. Otherwise, this is one of the most poorly-executed episodes overall.
5 Best: "Mistaken Identity"
Even in its earliest episodes, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was willing to touch on hard-hitting issues that most sitcoms would never even dare to approach. The series' sixth episode finds Will and Carlton both becoming the victims of racial profiling. While driving Uncle Phil's partner's Mercedes back home to Palm Springs, the two boys are pulled over and arrested because they fit the profile of a recent carjacker in the area.
Of course, the situation spirals out of control, and Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv come down to the police station to set things straight. But what follows is a truly sobering lesson about racial inequalities in modern-day America. It's an episode that primarily relies on absurdist humor in early scenes to diffuse the tension; but the episode's final act is all but devoid of laughter, highlighting the seriousness of the subject with painstaking clarity and honesty.
4 Worst: "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do"
Real, long-term fans of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air know one thing and one thing only to be true: there is only one correct Aunt Vivian, and it's the first one. Replacing Janet Hubert with Daphne Maxwell Reid, the series also fundamentally changed the personality of the series' strong matriarch, turning her instead into a withdrawn, judgmental, and privileged housewife.
One of the most disappointing changes as a result of this character revision comes in this sixth season episode arc. Unlike Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv #1, Phil and Vivian #2 are unable to communicate with one another, separating over a foolish argument and failure to communicate, which lead to various scenarios that portray both of them in truly unflattering lights.
3 Best: "Bullets Over Bel-Air"
We've already explored some of the truly serious issues facing Black youth that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air covered. But perhaps the most shocking example of its willingness to discuss these important topics came in this fifth season episode. As the episode begins, Carlton and Will are stopping at an ATM to take out money when suddenly, they find themselves being robbed. Carlton falters during the hold-up, despite Will's frantic urging, and as a result, Will winds up being shot.
The episode features some of the strongest acting from almost all of the series' main cast, but Ribeiro and Smith particularly have the opportunity to truly shine. Carlton plummets into rage and the desire for vengeance, taking it upon himself to buy a gun so that he can protect himself in the future. But Will, fearing for his cousin's safety far more than his own, tearfully pleads with him to give up the gun in one of the series' most compelling, sob-inducing scenes.
2 Worst: "The Best Laid Plans"
Gender dynamics weren't exactly progressive in 1990s television. Things have come a long way in terms of sexism in media, particularly after the #MeToo movement. That's what makes this episode so jarring to watch after all these years because it might be one of the most tone-deaf, downright insulting portrayals of a heterosexual relationship in television history.
In the episode, Will, sex-crazed and only thinking about himself, manipulates his current girlfriend, Monique, into getting married after she tells him that she is saving herself for marriage. Will very nearly consummates their relationship based on their fake marriage—officiated by Jazz, posing as a pastor—before confessing his sins to Monique, who punches him square in the face and abandons him. It's unclear if Will ever even learned the error of his ways, as this huge violation is never mentioned again.
1 Best: "Papa's Got A Brand New Excuse"
Will Smith's family life and experiences growing up are hardly the normal ones shown in most conventional sitcoms. The entire series' premise relies upon the fact that his mother sends him away so he can find a better life. A subject only fleetingly touched on until the fourth season, however, was the matter of Will's absentee father, Lou.
But this fourth season episode changes all of that. With the legendary actor Ben Vereen in the role, Lou breezes into town, charming everyone—especially his son, who has always desired a relationship with his father. Lou gets Will's hopes up only to back out at the last minute, unable to accept responsibility. The episode's final moments, in which a totally heartbroken Will tearfully asks Uncle Phil "How come he don't want me, man?" before Uncle Phil embraces him, is perhaps the most significant moment in the entire show.