The term “‘90s sitcom” has become white noise. Thanks in part to the fight to secure streaming rights to all the iconic, nostalgia-inducing titles of yesteryear, it feels like the term has been uttered to the point of semantic satiation. But like all cliches, there was and remains a specific logic behind the catchall. The term harks back to a time when network television still ruled and thanks to cable syndication, a sitcom about a troubled teen from West Philadelphia sent to live with his wealthy cousins in Los Angeles that ended before you learned how to speak could somehow become as core to your being as anything else you encountered in your formative years.
It was with the recognition of this peculiar fact that I and likely thousands of others of a certain age tuned in to watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion” on HBO Max this past Thursday. What we were met with was not a simple rehashing of the show’s greatest moments, nor, to the chagrin of some, a new in-character episode, but something that was more illuminating. As meaningful as a network television show can be for the audience, it pales in comparison to the intensive, years-long experience of those responsible for making one. It’s the depth and life-altering scope of such an undertaking that the reunion tries to get across. The special, which runs just a little over an hour long, gives a peek into the methodical, dizzying, and intimate experience of bringing six seasons and 148 episodes of one of the decade’s most revered family sitcoms to life. It’s a story filled with immense joy, sadness and, much like the show itself, a group of people learning, growing, and changing with and because of one another.
When the show premiered in September of 1990, it was an instant hit and sent 21-year-old Will Smith careening down the path to international stardom. But neither he nor really anyone else saw it coming. Early in the special, Smith recalls a fateful meeting with Quincy Jones at the legendary music producer’s birthday party. Benny Medina had already told Smith about his idea for a show based on his life growing up in Watts and being uprooted to Beverly Hills as a teenager. Jones, who was considering joining the project as a producer, wanted Smith, a rapper with no acting experience, to be the lead. “So here’s the deal: right now, everybody who needs to say yes for this show is sitting out in that living room,” Smith said Jones told him during a quick pep talk in his Grammy-filled home office. Smith took ten minutes to prepare, auditioned for a pair of NBC executives in the middle of the party, and a deal memo was signed that night.
Alfonso Ribeiro and Will Smith during the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion, 2020.
Courtesy of Saeed Adyani for HBO Max