There are few '90s sitcoms more beloved than The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Adding a modern spin to the classic ‘fish out of water’ comedy, the show centres on a young Will Smith (also the name of the rapper-turned-actor's character) who has to leave his beloved Philadelphia home after getting in one little fight with a local bully. Fortunately, Will has a rich aunt, a disciplinarian uncle and some snobbish but loveable cousins based in the ultra-rich Californian neighbourhood of Bel-Air – a story re-told every episode in those much-beloved credits.
A huge highlight of '90s BBC2 programming in the UK and NBC in the US, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air is being enjoyed by a whole new generation thanks to streaming services and re-runs. And, unlike many other shows from the same era, Fresh Prince remains as hilarious as ever, even when dealing with serious issues – a feat only the best comedies can achieve. So, on the eve of the show’s anniversary (the first episode debuted September 10, 1990), here are our picks for the best Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes that every fan will enjoy.
15. "The Fresh Prince Project" (Season 1, episode 1)
Will’s barely off the plane from Philly one minute when he starts messing with Uncle Phil’s bougie Bel-Air lifestyle. One of the best scenes in the show's opening episode encapsulates Will and Phil’s multi-layered relationship: Will accuses his uncle of selling out, with Phil replying by dropping a few home truths. Will has a Malcolm X film poster; Phil heard the real activist speak. Phil wasn’t born rich; he worked hard to succeed, mansion and all.
Then, just as the proud homemaker dismisses Will for the night, Phil wanders back into the lounge and hears his nephew playing Beethoven’s "Fur Elise" on the piano. With a small smile, Phil let's us knows that he sees huge potential locked away in our somewhat trying Prince.
14. "Mistaken Identity" (Season 1, episode 6)
The best Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes don't shy away from talking about race. While most of the commentary comes in the form of jokes about them being an African American family in mainly white Bel-Air, sometimes the show gets serious.
One example comes early on in the show's run, when Will and Carlton drive Phil’s law partner Henry Furth’s car to Palm Springs as a favour – while Aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil ride Henry’s helicopter, obviously. However, Will and Carlton get pulled over by a local redneck cop, who assumes these two young Black men have stolen the car. This is the privileged Carlton’s first encounter with Police racism: Will, on the other hand, knows the drill depressingly well. When Phil comes down to the jail to get his boys, his legal fury is truly something to behold.
13. "Asses To Asses" (Ep 10, S3)
Now, don’t get it twisted – The Fresh Prince is first and foremost a comedy, and few moments are funnier than seeing Carlton perform his now legendary dance, better known as simply the Carlton Dance.
Inspired by a pre-Friends fame Courtney Cox’s dancing in Bruce Springsteen’s "Dancing In The Dark" music video, plus Eddie Murphy’s "White Man Dance" from his Raw stand-up special, this wasn’t the first time we saw Carlton (played by Alphonso Ribeirio, a trained dancer) strut his stuff. But "Asses to Asses" is the first time we learn about his most secret passion: the music of Tom Jones. And when he hears the music, well, he can't help but dance…
12. "Def Poet’s Society" (Season 1, episode 7)
There are a lot of fat jokes at the expense of Uncle Phil’s weight in Fresh Prince – one of the show's few aspects that doesn’t stand up to today’s sensibilities. But, Phil always gave as good as he got, especially to Jazz, Will’s idiotic homeboy (as played by the real Will Smith’s musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff).
Jazz never tired of outstaying his welcome in the Banks family home. This episode shows Will getting out of his depth in a poetry class, but Jazz steals the episode when he can’t resist making one jab too many at Phil. Later, Jazz.
11. "Winner Takes Off" (Season 3, episode 14)
Geoffrey Butler is, as his name suggests, the Banks family’s British butler. But, despite his seemingly menial status, he more than holds his own when it comes to keeping the family in line, constantly mocking Phil’s weight, Hilary’s shallowness, and Aunt Vivian’s dreadful cooking, amongst other things.
When Carlton and Will decide to get their own back on Geoffrey by tricking him into believing he’s won the lottery, things quickly get out of hand. Suffice to say, the boys have to work hard to get back the real lynchpin of the Banks home. Phil eventually buries them in unmarked graves, threatening later in the episode: "I’m a judge… I can make it happen!"
10. "It’s Better To Have Loved And Lost It" (Season 4, episode 5)
Speaking of Geoffrey, we should really discuss the moment we discover just how the sardonic Brit ended up in America. Turns out he was formerly a long distance runner at international level. That is until he fatefully cheated in the 1976 Olympics by getting a cab at a vital point in the race. Thus, Geoffrey became "the shame of the nation" and had no choice but to leave the UK in disgrace.
So far, so ridiculous. But make sure you watch to the end of the episode to see how Geoffrey get a bit of his tattered dignity back with one of the best comebacks of the whole series. The thrust of the episode is about Carlton losing his virginity, which makes for some very funny revelations.
9. "Not With My Cousin You Don’t" (season 6, episode 7)
Ashley is the baby of the Banks family – the cute kid who instantly bonds with Will when her stuck-up siblings all dismiss his casual approach to life. So, to accidentally overhear the now-teenage Ashley discussing potentially having sex with her boyfriend, Derrick, is pretty shocking to Will and Carlton.
While they go off the deep end after hearing the news, Ashley fortunately has Hilary to have a sensible chat with. In the end, she doesn’t do it because she feels uncomfortable, showing that "little Ashley" is definitely growing up.
8. "Father Knows Best" (Season 5, episode 7)
To stay with arguably the most likeable of the Banks clan, Ashley also had her less mature moments. During "Father Knows Best", she secretly drops out of Bel-Air Academy in order to attend a regular school. As to not alert her folks to the fact, she ropes in cousin Will for one of his classic con tricks: he dresses up as Ashley’s make-believe father, Raoul Banks, fake moustache, glasses and all.
However, while Will’s busy trying to charm her teacher, his main purpose is long forgotten, until it’s far too late for Ashley’s dream of a more normal education. He’d have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that pesky moustache.
7. "Viva Lost Wages" (Season 6, episode 8)
The Fresh Prince loves a good dance number, and the best of them are when more than one cast member gets involved. In "Viva Lost Wages" we see Will and Carlton down to their last dollar in Las Vegas, where they are celebrating Carlton’s 21st birthday. Unfortunately, a gambling mad Carlton has lost all their cash, so they have to compete in a talent show to buy their airplane tickets home.
The episode makes for a great call-back to the desperate duo’s brief career as male strippers in Season 2. Nobody’s mother should have to see that.
6. "Banks Shot" (Season 1, episode 22)
With Aunt Viv away working, Will decides to take advantage of the lack of parental supervision and heads to the nearest pool hall (having first stolen Phil’s Benz to drive there). While Will can play pretty well for a teenager, he soon comes unstuck when faced with a real hustler, who wins and takes his car.
Uncle Phil then ventures to the pool hall (along with Geoffrey and ‘Lucille’) to get the car back and, in the process, show us a very different side of his personality. It seems Phil, in his younger years, played a bit of pool himself – and he doesn’t like anybody, not anybody, messing with his boy.