Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The: The Complete Second Season (DVD)
Before he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Will Smith (Independence Day
, Men in Black
) spent six seasons as a poor kid from Philadelphia who gets sent to his wealthy aunt and uncle in California to learn some class--leading to a classic sitcom collision of street smarts and pampered privilege. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - The Complete Second Season
finds the show in a happy groove. Will and the Banks family snipe and bicker cheerfully while grappling with problems ranging from true-to-life to truly preposterous. The more realistic side of life is found in episodes such as when Will's mother Vy (Vernee Watson-Johnson) has a new boyfriend and Will gets jealous, or when Will finds himself attracted to a girl (Queen Latifah, Bringing Down the House
), but won't take her to the prom because she's overweight. The ridiculous side bursts out when Will and his pompous cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) decide to make money by becoming strippers.
But whether realistic or silly, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stays a crisp, clean sitcom, with snappy writing and brisk, capable interplay among the cast, which also included James Avery and Janet Hubert-Whitten as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, the tolerant and usually sensible parents; Karyn Parsons as the spoiled, narcissistic Hilary; Tatyana M. Ali as the cute, sassy Ashley; and Joseph Marcell as the droll British butler Geoffrey. Despite living in a fantasyland of wealth, the show regularly touched on racial and class issues--lightly, but not turning a blind eye to the complexities of American life. When Will's aunt Janice (Charlayne Woodard, The Crucible) wants to marry a white man, Vy refuses to accept the match; Geoffrey falls in love with a neighbor, but rejects her when he learns that she's an heiress and not a housekeeper. The writers are clever enough to subvert expectations, such as when Will loses a basketball game so another player can catch the eye of a pro scout--only to learn that the other player thinks professional sports are an absurd gamble and doesn't want that kind of career. Through it all, Will Smith kept the show from being just a showcase for himself; he's secure enough to let the other actors take the spotlight, but carries episodes easily when they're built around him. No longer a rookie in this season, his comic chops start to equal his cocky charm, making the second season particularly strong. --Bret Fetzer