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The legacy of Black family sitcoms

TV shows about Black families have influenced demand for similar projects and have helped spark conversations about prejudice, identity and class.
Posted at 8:19 PM, Feb 28, 2023

Its theme song is almost instantly recognizable, with most people in a certain age group probably knowing all of its words. It's the story all about how the affluent Banks family and their fish-out-of-water cousin whose life got "flipped-turned upside down."

It's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

The sitcom debuted more than 30 years ago, and at its peak, it garnered nearly 20 million weekly viewers.

Today, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" is an in-demand nostalgic favorite on streaming platforms and has even inspired a 2020 reunion special on HBO Max, a dramatic reboot on Peacock and a new book about the series' impact on television.

"You have all different kinds of 'Fresh Prince' fans, right? The people who grew up with the show, then you have the generation a little bit, 10 years after that, who discovered in syndication and so on so many channels," said Chris Palmer, author of "The Fresh Prince Project." "Then you have the younger-younger generation who was kind of introduced to it through like memes and stuff like that." 

Palmer wrote "The Fresh Prince Project." It's a book featuring interviews with the show's cast, crew and creators about the cultural influence of the Will Smith-led comedy, its contributions to conversations about race and wealth, and the history of the Black sitcom families that came both before and after the Banks.

"If I'm writing about this influential Black sitcom, I have to understand where it came from," Palmer said.

Are TV reboots the new movie sequels?
Are TV reboots the new movie sequels?

Are TV reboots the new movie sequels?

It's starting to feel like the number of reboots, sequels and spinoffs heading to TV is getting out of hand.


Before "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," there was "The Jeffersons," a spinoff of Norman Lear's "All In The Family" about an affluent Black family in Manhattan. The show, which debuted in 1975, was one of the first to portray a Black family as prosperous and wealthy. Like many of Lear's other series, "The Jeffersons" tackled serious topics like racism, gun violence and mental health.

Running for 11 seasons, the show paved the way for other Black-led sitcom successes like "The Cosby Show," "Family Matters" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." 

"The fish out of water template is pretty common in TV, right?" Palmer said. "But this was a fish out of water where you took a Black kid from the hood, and you put him not with a White family or white boarding school, but you put him with another Black family, and they still were completely different."

The "fish out of water" and "pauper to prince" premises of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" showed American audiences that Black families weren't a monolith. And while the sitcom is remembered for its humor, it was also praised for taking on conversations about prejudice, Black identity and the intersection of race and class.

"It does have that sort of timeless quality," Palmer said. "I mean, 32 years ago; we're still talking about it today. It's the relatability of it. It's an easy, fun show to watch."

Just as "The Jeffersons" paved the way for "The Fresh Prince," the latter gave way for "Sister, Sister," "The Proud Family," "Black-ish" and all of its many spin-offs.

"Bel-Air," which debuted in 2022, re-imagines "The Fresh Prince" as a modern-day drama, and its second season debuted earlier this month.