Art / TV Protagonists

Revisiting Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

What makes a TV show protagonist so special?

Think of the most compelling show you know and imagine the protagonist. Yes, just like Alex Trebek, very good.

Compelling protagonists are essential for attracting viewers to a TV show, and more importantly, bringing you back for more. They have to make you obsessed. They’re like the TV show’s aphrodisiac, the sweet allure that turns you into a loyal servant craving new episodes week in, week out. More specifically, the protagonists that are the most enjoyable to watch and last the longest over many seasons are multi-dimensional.

Above all, the most beautifully crafted protagonists challenge your perception of them. They alter your understanding of who they are as characters by showing different layers of their personality. It’s similar to one’s relationship over time with a close friend. Over the years, the friends learn more and more about one another, and every now and then they catch a glimpse into a deeper and more nuanced aspect of each other’s personality. It could deepen their bond or challenge how they originally viewed each other.

Protagonists call into question their own morality or even reliability over the course of a series. They should make you wonder things like, “I didn’t know they were capable of that emotion at all,” or, “Why the hell do I care about this person in the first place? What a schmuck!” When a show explores a level of depth that toys with our original perception of a protagonist, it renders that character more real than any other.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White was intriguing because while he was Walter White—loving father, husband, and chemistry teacher—his transition into Heisenberg, master chef of meth hellbent on becoming emperor of the crystal meth industry, challenged viewers’ ability to support him as a protagonist. It became apparent that he had an inner darkness that manifested over time through the hubris and greed that distorted him and created a monster and one of the scariest anti-heroes television has ever seen.

Tony Soprano of The Sopranos was a mob boss, a murderer, and a man you definitely didn’t want to serve undercooked pasta to, and yet he had an underlying humanity that made viewers ethically conflicted about supporting a guy in the business of senseless killings.

Strangely, this same protagonist paradigm applies to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Yes, as a TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the equivalent of a guided walk through a sugar-glazed prairie by a skinny man with a delightful moustache and sugarcane cane. And yes, as TV shows, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are like being socked in the face a couple of times by that same man (but instead of being skinny he weighs three hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle because he only drinks fully cooked steaks that he eviscerates in a blender before consuming, and while all of this is happening your middle-school P.E. teacher is telling you you failed the mile test and you have to do it again except this time totally naked and in front of the whole school). But there’s something truly remarkable about Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will Smith is a character who displays all the happiness, joy, and goofiness in the world. He vacuums all the attention in the world to his contagious enthusiasm and eccentric, sunshine attitude.

Courtesy of Alan Light/flickr.com

Courtesy of Alan Light/flickr.com

Similar to Walter White and Tony Soprano, there are moments in which Will Smith takes this superficial platform of his character and drops it, changing the image viewers have of him. Throughout The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will is undoubtedly a charismatic, fun-loving, string-bean-like, goofy, hilarious kid, evidenced by the outrageous situations he gets himself into from episode to episode. Although he has a certain charm that makes viewers love watching him, there’s a masked rage and sadness that conflicts with the happy-go-lucky persona he embodies. This duality creates a whole new hidden and fragile dimension to his character. There is one scene in particular that is perhaps the most famous and memorable in the series, which undermines his trademark lackadaisical goofiness, bringing forth a tender and delicate darkness of Will’s character.

The moment occurs in the twenty-fourth episode of the fourth season, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.” This may be one of the most painful episodes of the entire show. It’s not like the pain you experience watching your friend buy those cheesy sneakers with the American flag embroidered on them because he says they’re “sick.” It’s the kind of pain that will genuinely bring you to tears.

It’s an uncomfortable episode. It’s also essential to revealing the depth of Will’s character. In this episode, Will sees his absentee father, Lou, for the first, and most importantly, last, time. It comes at the end of season 4, when Will is enrolled in his first year in college. By this point in the show, Uncle Phil has taken Will on as his own son. At every turn, Uncle Phil has been there to whip Will into shape. The thing is, Will does not yet understand he has a father in Uncle Phil. His biological father’s sudden appearance flips Will on his head. While he is initially apprehensive of his father’s return, Will quickly jumps into his father’s arms and begins to imagine the life that he can finally have with him. Lou offers Will the chance to go with him across the country and Will gladly accepts. While Uncle Phil hates to see Will leave with Lou, he ultimately must accept his decision.

At the end of the episode, Lou tells Uncle Phil he can no longer take Will with him on the trip and asks Uncle Phil to tell Will for him instead of telling Will himself. Uncle Phil refuses, so Lou decides he will call Will from the road. But right when Lou is about to leave, Will walks in with his suitcase, ready to go, only for Lou to have to break it to Will in person that he’s abandoning him again. The seminal moment is this scene. This scene revolves around interactions between Lou, Uncle Phil, and Will. After Lou leaves the room Will delivers an earth-shattering, character defining monologue to Uncle Phil.

There are a few subtle features of this scene that make it so unbelievably powerful. Firstly, there is a sense of gravity that is immediately conveyed through the characters’ clothes. Will, Uncle Phil, and Lou are all dressed in dull hues that effectively suck out from the room all of the lightheartedness and electricity that typify the show, building a sense of unusual tension and difficulty in the space in which they find themselves. Most notably, Will is lacking one of his outrageous, vibrantly colored shirts, staples of his wardrobe, and windbreakers; his cloak of hubris is swiftly removed and he’s rendered completely and emotionally vulnerable. His rubber-band elasticity is stiffened and his electricity is lost. All of Will’s happiness and comfort is sucked out and he loses his youthful exuberance that peg his persona.

Furthermore, Will’s body language runs contrary to the audience’s previous conception of his personality. Normally, Will’s arm and hand movements make him very expressive and create as much energy as anything that he says. In this scene, however, his hands are in his pockets and he’s rooted to the spot in a manner of childlike discomfort. Instead of communicating his usual ecstasy and happiness, he shrinks into himself with uneasiness.

When Lou breaks the news to Will that he has to abandon him again, Will starts rocking his shoulders back and forth, movements that typically indicate awkwardness and a lack of confidence, which is a monumental change in his body movements. For someone so expressive with his body, it appears as though he totally shuts out that part of him. His confident posture distorts into sheepish vulnerability. This change suggests he doesn’t feel at ease while talking to Lou and yet it sharply contrasts with how he literally sees Lou. Will holds unbroken eye contact, the last fraction of composure he has left in front of this man who he now rejects as a father figure. By staring this man directly in the eye, Will shows his defiance, creating a fascinating combination of discomfort and confidence.

The beauty of this scene is that it challenges the perception Will displays as an indestructible protagonist. It’s a feeling that is unfamiliar to him, an instance that gives the audience the greatest sense of his character. He has shown every indication that he is emotionally iron-clad until this moment in his life. Furthermore, this is the first scenario in which his stamina is challenged. Will isn’t sure how to deal with a situation of this severity and all of the strength that he gained from overcoming obstacles on his own without his father is essentially useless.

As his father tries to explain to him that he has to leave him, Will begins nodding exaggeratedly, feigning understanding. Clearly, this shows that he’s on the precipice of an outburst and holding in scarlet, burning, hot rage, but what’s more telling is that this emotion and response is arguably atypical of Will. This scene shows him losing his composure and confidence. It’s as though he’s displaying childlike tendencies of dealing with discomfort: if someone is annoying you, you just say yes and yes and yes and yes until they go away and then you explode. Up until this point in the show, Will never showed emotion that breached his outer layer of indestructibility and exposed his inner fragility.

Once his father walks out of the scene, Will’s monologue reveals his true depth. In the first half of the monologue, in a moment of unusual tenderness, Will takes out a present he bought for his dad, a statue of a father holding and nurturing a child. He imagines a life in which his father can finally nurture, teach, and guide him on how to be a man—the hopes horrifically dashed once his father lets him down once more. Without his father, Will was forced to figure out how to get through things that are symbolic of a father-son relationship on his own: a first basket in hoops, a first shave, a first date, a first fight. Learning how to do these things on his own was previously a source of strength for they stemmed from his absence of a role model, an important aspect of his character. Once his father comes back into his life, Will has a fleeting glimpse of what could be. He considers that maybe he’s finally found the father he’s always wanted.

His father now gone, Will hopelessly tries to hold that same external defiance and composure, but he’s bursting at the seams until he explodes with “To hell with him!” which serves as the halfway point in the monologue. He then speaks with defiance, at last grasping that he can succeed without any lessons from his father. The monologue ends with an embrace between Will and Uncle Phil, and Uncle Phil permanently steps in as the father Will always wanted and needed.

Will’s pent-up anger in this scene can be partially attributed to his father’s absence over the most important years in his life. Everything he has achieved during his adolescence was on his own, and while it may have given him confidence, it produced an underlying layer of frustration and rage that had gradually accumulated over the “fourteen great birthdays” he’d had since his father had left him and his mother. It’s a facet of his character that is briefly hinted at previously, but it doesn’t manifest itself until he finally meets his father and is abandoned once again.

With his outburst, he unleashes all of the anger that he’s suppressed over the course of his life, distilled into four words: “To hell with him!” The following moment of silence allows Will to accept the finality of his exclamation. He is finally done with his father and closes by saying, “I don’t need him then, I don’t need him now.”

Courtesy of Sally/flickr.com

Courtesy of Sally/flickr.com

This second half of the monologue allows Will to look to the future without his father, but what’s heartbreaking is that he envisions it alone. He doesn’t see a role model who can help him through the next stages in his life. He has had to get through his adolescent years alone. and when his father shows up, he sees the possibility of his father alongside him in his adulthood. But that possibility vanishes and he only sees more loneliness: “I’m gonna get through college without him, I’m gonna get a great job without him.” The anger in Will’s voice is a complex mixture of confidence that he can figure those things out himself, fury that his father won’t be there to help him through it, and even fear, due to the prospect of having to go through more difficult moments in life on his own.

At the end of the monologue, he looks Uncle Phil in the eye and says, “I’m gonna be a better father than he ever was, and I sure as hell don’t need him for that, cause there ain’t a damn thing he could ever teach me about how to love my kids!” They share a heart-breaking moment of silence and then Will crumples into tears and says, “How come he don’t want me, man?”

He’s left confused and disillusioned, crying as he wonders why his father doesn’t want him. It’s as painful as it is illuminating. The essence of his character is compressed into this moment. He just wants a father figure. He’s angry. He’s torn apart. He’s eviscerated. Once Uncle Phil hugs him, however, it creates an unshakeable bond between them. One of the most intriguing moments is when—mid-hug—Uncle Phil knocks off Will’s hat, as if to say he is holding his head and can communicate a fatherly connection to a son. This speaks volumes to the role Uncle Phil has been playing—and will continue to play—in Will’s life.. It’s telling that Will says he can’t learn anything from his father about how to love his kids, but his embrace with his uncle shows that perhaps Will now realizes who his role model really is. Uncle Phil effectively adopted Will as his own son and has been the man showing him how to be a father and how to love a family. He has been the epitome of the man that Will wants to be.

This iconic scene ends with a shot of the present Will bought for his father, which is stationed in front of the couch on the ottoman in the middle of the living room, as Will and Uncle Phil hold the embrace until the credits roll. It represents Uncle Phil’s permanence in Will’s life as the man who is ultimately filling the void as Will’s father.

This scene is beautiful, gutting, and critical to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It operates to completely obliterate the viewer’s perception of Will’s character. It’s Will’s moment of weakness that calls into question his characteristic goofiness and introduces a side of Will that is unbelievably fragile. Up until this episode, viewers were attached to seeing Will as a confident protagonist, but with his father’s reappearance, they witness the concealed angst and anger that plagues him. Moments like these are rare in the show, but they are all the more special to viewers who catch a glimpse of how complex Will is as a character. Many viewers cite this scene as the most memorable and cherished part of the show.

I’m not trying to say that Walter White, Tony Soprano and Will Smith would get along, because they probably wouldn’t. Walter White doesn’t have a sense of humor and Tony Soprano is a murderer. The point is that Will Smith isn’t as appreciated as a protagonist in the same way that Walter White and Tony Soprano are, and yet all three shows function similarly by challenging our perceptions of the characters. Walter White forces audiences to feel uncomfortable with the dark capacities of a cancer-riddled chemistry teacher. Tony Soprano leads viewers to consider the inner humanity of a mob boss. Will Smith invites audiences to look beyond a young man’s external cheerfulness and discover the painful realities he grapples with behind his facade. There is a certain amount of discomfort in accepting all of these protagonists, in that they oppose our original impressions of them. That’s ultimately the foundation of the beauty of these characters and our fascination with them.