The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which made a mainstream star out of rapper Will Smith, ran its 100th episode Monday, an hourlong takeoff on Smith’s other profession, the record business.
Late last season on the show, we learned that Smith has a lot of range as a serious actor, confirming raves for his role in the film “Six Degrees of Separation.” For the 100th episode, though, he is only asked to be a jiving, voluble class clown as usual — and for the most part, it’s enough, for his rubbery face and loosey-goosey charm carry the show.
The funniest bit actually comes at the beginning, a display of kidding-the-hand-that-feeds-you that goes back to the Hope/Crosby “Road” films. When we left Will last spring, the writers left us hanging as to whether next season would take place in Bel-Air or Philadelphia, Will’s hometown. Several months later, we find him working contentedly in a restaurant in Philly when a goon from the “NBC Star Retrieval Unit” kidnaps him and trucks him back to Bel-Air. Well, that worked out neatly.
But amid a few clever one-liners about the music biz, things get pretty silly from then on. Cousin Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali) has grown over the life of the show into a 15-year-old would-be singing star, and Will decides to become her manager. Through his patented combination of wile and guile, Will gets her a record contract with transparently named executive Gordy Berry — played with silky ruthlessness by Obba Babatunde.
Of course, hubris quickly sets in. Egomaniacal Will is ousted as manager by his Uncle Phil (James Avery), the high-powered lawyer, Ashley in turn becomes infatuated with herself, and when the whole starmaking machinery breaks down, everyone returns to “normal” in true sitcom fashion.
Perhaps the show’s funniest caricature, Hilary (Karyn Parsons) — a black Valley Girl — now has a TV talkshow, which we don’t hear too much about. Her brother Carlton (Alfonso Ribiero), the terminal preppy, becomes an opportunistic bootlicker for whoever is on the rise.
It’s still an entertaining show, turning black stereotypes on their heads, showing hints of understanding on both sides of the cultural generation gap.