How The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Was Ahead of Its Time, and What It Told Us About American Values

All these TV shows from my childhood are getting reboots. Boy Meets World, Full House, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and probably a few more. Part of me thinks this is a really cool byproduct of crowdfunding which is how MST3K and Reading Rainbow among other beloved IPs at least 20 years old got resurrected, along with companies like Hulu and Netflix growing in power to the point that they don’t just have their own production teams that create new shows, but they also pick up shows that got dropped by the big networks like The Mindy Project. It is pretty amazing when you think about it.

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But another part of me is just cantankerous as fuck and groans, “Come on, Zack Morris phones are no longer some luxury novelty and most Seinfeld plots don't hold up after 2003. We have more than enough original new shows today with countless means to share them and find audiences. Let these franchises die in peace already.

Of the 90s live-action shows getting reboots, with the exception of Fresh Prince I only caught snippets of most of them actually. I was more into other shows like the short-lived and brilliant The Critic, which also had a reboot in the early 00s as a series of webisodes. I think that had it been rebooted in the era of Kickstarter breathing life back into Veronica Mars, we could've had a whole new golden age of Jay Sherman trumpeting “It stinks!” With the never-ending barrage of reboots, we need him more than ever!

I'd definitely want to check out the Fresh Prince reboot out of curiosity if nothing else. But I think that it'll fall flat in terms of hitting viewers’ nostalgia buttons because sadly, James Avery is no longer with us and there's nothing the studio can do about that. No one else could play Uncle Phil like how they just got another actress for Aunt Viv. And come on, Will butting heads with Uncle Phil MADE that show even more than his incessantly teasing Carlton for his love of Tom Jones and country club attire.

I had some episodes on while I was working and it got me thinking about how not only was the Fresh Prince pretty ahead of its time, it had a lot of character development and depth that made it more realistic than most other teen sitcoms at the time.

The episode that probably stands out to most people is where Will’s father briefly comes back and he has an incredibly moving breakdown ending with “How come he don’t want me, man?” and confirms what the audience has known all along, that Uncle Phil is really the father Will never had.

There’s also the one where Will literally takes a bullet for Carlton and he’s devastated when he finds out that the incident has made Carlton want to carry a gun at all times, which is the exact sort of thing his mother sent him to live with his aunt and uncle to escape.

Both of them were really powerful and definitely broke the mold for shows meant for young people at the time. But two different episodes stood out to me in particular: the one where Will goes to work for the car salesman, and when the entire Banks family goes to their old neighborhood to do charity work. Neither of which I could find clips for, unfortunately!

I didn’t see the car salesman one until I was 28 and it was right between the time I was on a massive death spiral from applying to 500+ jobs and yielding nothing, and when I decided to just totally ditch the financial industry and went on to have one of the best summers of my life. It was a really complex episode where Will had to face difficult decisions as Mr. Mulholland’s star employee who pressures him to quit school so other salesmen wouldn’t get his commissions. Was Will wrong to want to quit, or was Mr. Mulholland taking advantage of him? The whole family is PISSED regardless.

At the time though, I found myself wanting to grab Aunt Viv and yell, “Do you know what the hell is waiting in 2001 with the dot-com bubble bursting?! Then how we’re ALL totally screwed after 2008? Will can go to college any time. Let him make good money while he can, especially if he’s good at selling cars and he and his boss are happy!”

Granted, if Will was merely a happy car salesman (they had to throw in the whole losing his soul conflict to make it more black and white for the kids watching)  it wouldn’t make for a lot of exciting conflict to fuel a couple more seasons. No, they had to keep it relatable to young people and have Viv beat him over the head with prioritizing getting the degree to hold out for something "more worthy" and the job exits to stage right.

This was just a hardline value for most of my generation’s parents. When that episode aired, it was that glorious side of the 90s when you could get a nice job fresh out of college regardless of what your degree was in. The kind of job that would definitely surpass a good living selling cars. No, not what I went through in 2014 when I was suddenly fighting both recent grads and people my parents’ age for a shitty bookkeeping job, all while people around me are saying "But...but...YOU HAVE ACCOUNTING DEGREES! And everyone needs their taxes done! You mean you DON'T have 80 gajillion nice job offers lined up?" Haha, no, I did not.

But something has persisted through time that makes the car salesman episode hold up: the way Viv looks down upon it, like Will is too good to work that job and it's beneath him.

John Cheese, Cracked's virtuoso on class struggles, wrote about this very succinctly in 5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation. While selling cars isn’t a manual labor job per se, it’s definitely a job that’s not highly-regarded. But well, someone has to do it. Why should there be shame in it?

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This shaming phenomenon is very real, and I actually got into this on Alternet recently with a commenter who said that they were financially stable with a medical imaging job and this blew debt-laden college grads’ minds who were struggling in the professional sector or in retail. Because medical imaging is viewed as “lesser” compared to becoming a doctor or nurse or just getting any given office job, the local community college could barely get people enrolled in the program. The hospital employing the commenter also had to keep raising the entry-level pay for x-ray technicians because they couldn’t get enough applicants. All because people have it ingrained in them that there is shame in taking one of these “lesser” jobs and not needing as much education for it as one would to go work in almost any given professional sector or Corporate America job. When look at how miserable a lot of people are in the latter! Hell, they probably make the same or less than the x-ray technician anyway unless they wind up losing their soul like Will did in that episode.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a car salesman or an x-ray technician. Society needs those jobs and no one working them should be seen as inferior. If you’re making an honest living, and make enough to cover your needs and wants-- well, what’s it to the people who still swallow the Kool-Aid that an office job requiring a degree (and more often than not pays a LOT less) is better or more worthy of respect than doing x-rays or driving a truck?

I think career paths that make you miserable are bullshit, and destroying society. This episode seriously hit home for me because I too was browbeat with the whole “you should really focus on your education” ideal and hell, I was lucky I was able to-- then 2008 happened and we were all fucked. With how much even public college costs today, it also takes privilege to focus all your time on school. My father would say things like, "Well, so-and-so will be a cashier all their life, you're going places!" When I swear to Toad, there were cashiers making more money than I was on some of these shitty tax jobs. Car salesmen and x-ray technicians definitely were for most of my career despite all the time and money I had to dump into my degrees and EA license. Seriously, fuck shaming people for holding these jobs that society definitely needs.

 

So that’s the car salesman episode. The other one that really stood out to me was the family going to their old neighborhood. At the end of the episode, Uncle Phil reflects on how he was struggling to keep his family fed then they all celebrate when the law firm he eventually becomes a partner in hires him. He swears to stay in that same apartment because this is where their community is and subsequently, their values.

But Uncle Phil wistfully stands in the remains of the old building and says, “And I bought that Bel Air mansion and I never looked back.” The complexity of his character really shines here because he feels he’s gotten rid of a huge part of himself as a result of his wealth and success, a part he may not have wanted to ditch. Aunt Viv tries to console him by telling him he worked hard for everything he has and he’s helped out so many causes: but Uncle Phil says that he can’t just a write a check to feel better for forgetting who he is: a guy who struggled, who fought hard for everything he has, a man who chained himself to buildings in peaceful protest. I found myself slow clapping with my jaw dropped. It incited me to state the following.

I don’t like the flowery, Pollyanna bullshit ignoring reality that frequently comes up in entrepreneurial blogs, so I’m going to bluntly say it: you wanna know the “secret” to prosperity? There is no secret.

Once your absolute basic needs are taken care of-- food, housing, medical care, transportation, and pet care (if applicable) as the bare basics, followed by education/training and business investment for earning a living then social/entertainment stuff to feel more human-- and you don’t have to be constantly stressed about affording these things, you have a choice once more money presents itself. You can set your priorities, values, and goals, and be happy with what you have, secure in the knowledge that you have a bed to sleep in and know where your next meal is coming from. Or you can make yourself miserable in this relentless pursuit of more money, more stuff, and having nicer shit than your neighbor or colleague or whatever.

Making money is nice but it’s not everything. “Financial independence” means different things to different people. When I briefly held a white-shoe tax office job, I met lots of people who were insanely wealthy and had lifestyles most people can’t fathom. They trapped themselves into ridiculous housing expenses and habits (one client needed $250K/year to break even!) and I knew right then that I didn’t want that. I mean, sure, there’s things I’d do if I had more money. I think we all have those things tucked away in our minds. But I knew I did NOT want to be like these people and totally lose my values like that where it’s all “Fuck your taking a stand for human rights, MY MONEY MY MONEY! All poor people just don’t work!” I observed that most of them came from wealth, or middle class comforts at the least, but the ones I found the saddest were the people who did know what it was like to struggle and then completely forgot just like Uncle Phil did. Whether they got that wealth by hard work or by luck, they forgot the struggle like it was Sam Baker’s 16th birthday.

Hey, you don’t have to live like a Tibetan monk who just dropped every last possession off at Goodwill in order to be happy either. All I’m saying is that America has some pretty distorted values when it comes to labor and personal finance, the endless quest to have nicer shit than other people is stupid, and man the Fresh Prince really had a lot more going on under the surface.

And don’t forget the struggle.


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