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The best and worst episodes of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

From 1990 to 1996, NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starred Will Smith as a heightened version of himself — a troubled West Philadelphia youth whose interests basically boiled down to basketball, ladies, rap, and general misbehavior. But when he got in "one little fight" on the neighborhood basketball court, his mom shipped him off to live with his affluent Aunt and Uncle Banks in Bel-Air, California.

Over the course of the show's six seasons and 148 episodes, the plot revolved around Will's street smart, inner-city upbringing clashing with the Banks' more wealthy and well-off ideals and lifestyle. With Smith's brand of easygoing comedy and charming personality, the show was often hilarious. But it also had a lot to say about class, race, and societal expectations. In some of the best episodes, these issues were brought to the forefront. But Fresh Prince wasn't without its awful episodes, either. From scenes that made us cry with laughter to moments that made us groan in embarrassment, here are the best and worst episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Worst: I, Clownius showed Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was running out of ideas

"I, Clownius" is a truly cringe-worthy episode that really doesn't fit in with the vibe of the series as a whole. While other episodes manage to combine serious, life-threatening scenarios with Smith's signature humor, this one doesn't work at all. 

The premise is that Uncle Phil (James Avery) is presiding over a high-profile trial and is getting some threatening messages. So when he, Will, and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) stop at a gas station and are suddenly held up by a clown with a bomb strapped to him, things get serious ... but not at all humorous. The crazed, mad clown wants a big break via a TV appearance, but the whole thing is really just sad. The clown isn't funny, his performance is pathetic, and having Uncle Phil, Will, and Carlton mock him just kind of makes them seem mean. Sure, they're being held up and threatened, but mockery isn't exactly a good angle to take when you're trying to talk down a mad man. This was one of those season six episodes where it felt like, as the series was wrapping up, they had really run out of story ideas. 

Best: Mistaken Identity took a serious look at racial profiling

In the first season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Carlton gets a lesson in what Will's life is really like. The Banks family is heading to Palm Springs to visit friends when Uncle Phil's business partner asks Carlton to drive his Mercedes since everyone else is going via helicopter (yes, really). Will tags along, but the two are soon pulled over and arrested. Carlton believes the official story that they were pulled over for driving too slowly and arrested because the car wasn't theirs. But Will's insistence that they were only pulled over because they were two black guys driving a nice car really crushes Carlton's worldview.

Uncle Phil bails them out, but not without giving the cops a warranted lecture on their legal mishandling of the situation. When Will, Carlton, and Uncle Phil get back home, Will berates Carlton for believing that their race had nothing to do with the incident. Carlton asks his dad, "Dad, if you were a policeman, and you saw a car driving at two miles an hour, wouldn't you stop it?" Uncle Phil doesn't want to break his son's heart and destroy his innocence with the realities of racial profiling in the criminal justice system, and Carlton manages to keep his hope alive, perhaps naively, saying, "I would stop it." If any of the more serious episodes of Fresh Prince are still relevant today, it's this one.

Worst: A Decent Proposal was a weird, downbeat episode of Fresh Prince

It was only a matter of time before playboy Will found a serious girlfriend, but settling into marriage while barely through college? That's where this particular relationship lost a lot of people. 

Nia Long's Lisa was introduced in the early part of season five in "Will's Misery." Now, the premise of that episode was that Lisa was pledging a sorority and had to capture notorious womanizer Will for some Misery-style shenanigans. That storyline already put some people off of the character to being with. So when the two ended up engaged less than a season later, things still didn't feel right.

In "Decent Proposal," Will finds himself healing in the hospital after being shot by a mugger. He's probably under the influence of pain killers and definitely high on the adrenaline of his near-death experience, and that's when he proposes to Lisa. Lisa hesitates and doesn't really answer, but Will just kind of assumes she'll say yes. She finally confronts him and says he's only proposing to her in his moment of vulnerability. The two go through counseling and end up not going through with the wedding after all, but the whole relationship almost made an otherwise top-notch season kind of a downer. As for Lisa, she sadly didn't really have a personality other than being Will's girlfriend, so she quickly disappeared without a thought.

Best: She Ain't Heavy addressed the issue of body shaming

Throughout the run of the show, Will always aspired to be some sort of ladies' man. He was constantly hitting on girls, taking them on dates, and trying to get them alone. In later seasons, he finally devoted himself to Lisa but not without solidifying his reputation as a total player. So when Will actually hit it off with a girl who was unlike any of the others he'd dated, the show managed to tackle the issue of body shaming and sizeism long before those words ever became a thing in society.

This season two episode features Queen Latifah as Dee Dee, Will's blind date to a basketball game who's more plus-sized than he's used to. But Dee Dee calls him on his snap judgment of her size, and the two really bond over their shared sense of humor and similar interests. But Will's still too afraid to ask Dee Dee to the school dance knowing that his friends have already made fun of him for hanging with her. Ultimately, Will and Dee Dee go with other dates, but they both have a miserable time. Will recognizes the error of his ways — that personality and not looks are what's really important — and the two make up. Unfortunately, the relationship was soon forgotten, as is the way of episodic sitcoms, but Dee Dee's storyline really brought a breath of fresh air to Fresh Prince.

Worst: Get a Job featured Chris Rock in a pretty offensive role

In the incredibly offensive episode "Get a Job," Will and Carlton both battle it out for the position as an assistant on Hilary's (Karyn Parsons) daytime talk show. In order to get the gig, Will lands a famous movie director named Maurice, played by Chris Rock. But Maurice says that he'll only appear on Hilary's show if Will takes his sister, Jasmine, for a date night out on the town. The sister turns out to be Chris Rock in drag, who totally digs Will, who in turn has to fake liking her and showing her a good time.

Looking back now, the whole thing comes off as pretty transphobic, and the cross-dressing comedy is really out of date and not at all funny. From the leopard print dress to the bad platinum blonde wig to the bright red lipstick, it's clear that the whole role of Jasmine is supposed to be a caricature of a drag queen, which by today's standards is pretty insensitive. This was another late-series episode, with the only plus side being that Rock's career took off after the appearance. 

Best: Blood Is Thicker Than Mud was one of Carlton's best episodes

In "Blood Is Thicker Than Mud," Will and Carlton participate in Rush Week at college and decide to pledge Phi Beta Gamma, a black fraternity on campus. Like any other frat rush, the tasks are humiliating and grueling, but Carlton is definitely treated the worst by Top Dog, the leader of the frat, because of his rich background. So when Will makes Phi Beta Gamma but Carlton doesn't, Will tries to pretend that neither of them made it. However, when Carlton eventually confronts Top Dog, the frat leader calls Carlton a "sell-out," and accuses him of "betraying his own kind." But Carlton stands up for himself, giving Top Dog his own lecture, saying, "Being black isn't what I'm trying to be, it's what I am." When Will and Carlton get home, Uncle Phil expresses his sympathy, asking, "When are we going to stop doing this to each other?"

The episode did a wonderful job of showing just how complex Carlton Banks is as a character. As a young Black man going to prestigious schools and living among affluence and wealth, he's constantly called to prove that he belongs in the world of wealthy elites. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, his Blackness is called into question because of that affluence, and his cultural identity is questioned by other Black people because of his wealthy upbringing. It must have been a pretty conflicting way to grow up, and as this episode proves, there's more to Carlton than Tom Jones and sweater vests.

Worst: Where There's a Will, There's a Way (Part 1) replaced Aunt Viv

Season four of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air brought a lot of new things to the show. Baby Nicky was born, Will and Carlton went to college, and a brand new Aunt Vivan suddenly appeared on camera. Original Aunt Viv, Janet Hubert-Whitten, was fired from the show in a pretty controversial way, as there was an intense behind-the-scenes conflict between Hubert-Whitten and Will Smith. According to Hubert-Whitten, Smith was awful to her, and the producers had a "vendetta" against her. And it was rumored that she was fired because her pregnancy, which was written into the show, was a breach of contract. In turn, Smith has said that Hubert-Whitten was terrible to work with and was constantly creating drama on set. It was definitely a clash of personalities, and we'll never really know the truth.

But season four began with the show basically brushing the whole thing aside and recasting the role as if nothing ever happened. Daphne Maxwell Reid took over the role, and the only mention of it was when Jazz (Jeffrey Allen Townes) says in the episode," You know, Ms. Banks, since you had that baby, there's something different about you," followed by a sly look to the camera from Smith. Reid wasn't terrible in the role, as she was kind and charming. But she lacked the fire and attitude that original Aunt Viv had. It's too bad that Hubert-Whitten and Smith butted heads because OG Aunt Viv was the best Aunt Viv. 

Best: Bullets Over Bel-Air was one of Fresh Prince's most emotional episodes

"Bullets Over Bel-Air" is kind of like the second half of "Mistaken Identity" in that the tiny semblance of innocence left in Carlton is completely obliterated by the end of this season five episode. The story finds Will and Carlton joking back and forth while taking money out of an ATM ... when a robber surprises them from behind and holds them at gunpoint. When Carlton takes too long, the robber fires, and Will takes the bullet for his cousin. Will survives, but it's Carlton's psychological wounds that will never heal.

With Will still in the hospital, Carlton goes through an emotional breakdown over his desire for revenge, his rage at being held up, and the reality that most criminals get away with their crimes. In his downward spiral, he buys a gun to protect himself. Worrying that his cousin will only hurt himself further, Will pleads with Carlton from his hospital bed to give him the gun. The scene, and really the whole episode, features some of the best acting from Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro. And by focusing on the extremely different upbringings of two Black men, the show delivers some of its most interesting and intellectual conflicts. Ultimately, when Will, who grew up on the mean streets, begs his wealthy traumatized cousin through tears not to resort to the same violence that they were exposed, it's a turning point for him. And for Carlton, it's when reality finally sets in.

Worst: For Sale By Owner featured a controversial cameo

Clip shows are always boring, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had a handful of them during its six-season run. But by far the worst was during season four, in "For Sale By Owner," when the Bankses are offered $1 million to sell their home to a wealthy, anonymous buyer. The episode then revisits some of the Banks' most cherished times in their home, with only Ashley (Tatiana M. Ali) wanting to stay put. The rest of the family is chomping at the bit for a big payday.

In the end, though, they're out of luck. The anonymous buyer turns out to be Donald Trump and his then-wife Marla Maples. Not only is the cameo a groaner now, but as it turns out, Trump was actually talking about the house next door to the Banks', and the deal is off. Trump's appearance in anything these days comes with a lot of baggage, so watching the episode now, not only does it suffer from being a clip show, but its "celebrity cameo" isn't one Smith even celebrates anymore.

Best: The Big Four-Oh showed Aunt Viv at her very best

"The Big Four-Oh" really showcases the comedy and confidence that all of the characters exude throughout the show's run, especially when it comes to Aunt Viv. Facing the reality of turning 40 years old, Aunt Viv, played here by Janet Hubert-Whitten, starts having a bit of a midlife crisis. When her kids play her a video at her birthday party showing old home movies and photos, she remembers that at one point in her life, all she wanted to do was dance.

Aunt Viv decides to head to a dance class and also audition for a major role. The other younger dancers in the group give her weird looks and question her abilities, but Aunt Viv proves them all wrong. She blows the other dancers out of the water in an amazing performance (Hubert-Whitten was, after all, in the original Broadway run of Cats), and once she's done, she gives the mocking dancers a snap before proudly leaving the room. As a result, Aunt Viv is offered one of the lead roles, but she turns it down, devoting herself to her job as a college professor and her family. She just wanted to know that she could still do it if she wanted to, and boy, does she prove it.

Worst: Best Laid Plans was the ickiest episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Without a doubt, the worst episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the one where Will lies to a girl and fakes their wedding just to have sex with her and take her virginity. Yes, you read that right. Sure, Will is a playboy, but this is downright low. 

Will's girlfriend Monique (Kim Fields) tells him that she's saving herself for marriage. So what does Will do? Rather than respect her wishes and self-confidence, he proposes to her, of course. Monique, for some reason, says yes, and Will has Jazz officiate a fake wedding. Will even gets all the way to their wedding night hotel room before he finally comes clean and doesn't let Monique go through with it.

Watching the episode now, Will's behavior is such a serious act of deviant mistrust that it's practically criminal. Will's actions are so disgusting, disrespectful, and vile that the episode is hard to watch. Even the episode title — "Best Laid Plans" — is skeevy. 

Best: Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse will make you weep

After Will's dad, Lou (Ben Vereen), abandoned him and his mother when Will was just a little kid, Will grew up without a father figure in his life. So when Lou returns after 14 years, Will is simultaneously hesitant and excited when his dad tells him he's finally ready to be a part of his life. It's too little too late, but Will forgives his dad, much to the chagrin of Uncle Phil, who can't forgive Lou for abandoning his family. Lou and Will start planning a summer-long road trip together, yet when the time to leave rolls around, Lou can't commit once again, and he tries to bail without even saying goodbye to Will. Thankfully, Uncle Phil catches him and makes him face Will himself.

Once Lou is gone, however, Will breaks down in a combination of anger and sadness. He spews angry vitriol towards Lou but then asks, through tears, "How come he don't want me, man?" That's when he collapses, crying into the arms of the only man who's ever been a father figure to him — Uncle Phil. The episode proved not only that Smith could really act when the drama called for it, but that the show wasn't afraid to tackle serious issues like absentee fathers and the psychological trauma that results. The episode was funny, touching, sad, and filled with love. In other words, it was Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at its best.