NBC has recently taken to promoting its two Monday-night sitcoms as ”The Fresh Prince-Blossom Hour,” suggesting that the network believes the audiences for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Blossom are in need of a little nudging to unite them in sitcom solidarity: Yo, if you like one, why not watch the other? To some extent, this process is already under way. Fresh Prince, starring Will Smith as a poor Philadelphia youth living with his well-to-do Los Angeles aunt and uncle, is currently the highest-rated primetime comedy series among teenage viewers, and regularly achieves top 20 ratings.

Blossom, featuring Mayim Bialik as a smart, sassy adolescent girl living in an all-male-lunkhead, single-parent household, has been increasing its audience. It now finishes regularly in the 20s, up from its ratings average in the 50s last season. Ratings aside, though, these two shows have a lot in common, not least of which is that they’re standard-issue sitcoms raised to a higher level by the uncommon charm of their stars.

Smith first came to prominence as the talking half of the rap duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Rap’s verbal dexterity seems to spawn good actors — witness the recent solid film performances by Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood and Ice-T in New Jack City. But Smith has emerged as something more: a first-rate comedian with a deadpan stare that makes Jack Benny look like a giggler. Smith seems so spontaneous, so much at ease in front of the camera, that it’s frequently hard to tell which of his lines are scripted and which are ad-libbed.

Bialik also achieved her initial fame in another medium, winning raves for her spunky, let-me-at-’em performance as a kid version of Bette Midler’s character in the 1988 film Beaches. In Blossom she frequently gets laughs by giving her trite punch lines a spin with an artfully raised eyebrow, an expertly timed double take, or a beaming grin, as if to say, ”I know this isn’t too funny, but you gotta love me for trying, don’t you?” Remarkably enough, we do: Coming on like the stage-trained trouper she is, the 16-year- old Bialik manages never to be pushy or annoyingly precocious.

Both Smith and Bialik float across the tops of their sitcoms; it’s entirely possible to watch Fresh Prince and Blossom and admire the stars while disliking their shows — I’ve been doing it for weeks now. Bialik aside, Blossom is just plain dumb: yet another show about a nice, hapless single father (in this case, Ted Wass) coping with kids — his daughter and two dumbbell-hunk sons (Michael Stoyanov and Joey Law-rence). A feisty grandfather, played with weary professionalism by shrewd fox Barnard Hughes, pops up occasionally, only adding to the feeling that we’ve seen all this before.

If Blossom minus Blossom is stupid, Fresh Prince without the Fresh Prince would be irritating. Smith, who goes by his own name in the show, lives with a family of insufferable snobs headed by his lawyer uncle Phillip (James Avery) and aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert-Whitten). Will’s cousins are the beautiful, viciously condescending Hilary (Karyn Parsons), the handsome preppy dufus Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), and bratty little Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali). There’s also the posh household’s butler, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), whom an NBC press release describes as ”the absolute antithesis of Smith in his formal demeanor, but Smith believes they’re actually kindred spirits.” That’s corporate-speak for: Working-class folks always stick together.

Thank goodness Smith breezes through the show with a sly smile, ignoring the lame punch lines all around him. The message of the series is that although Will acts like a street-smart wise guy, we know he’s a lot more than that — sensitive, kind, a good student. And as unlikable and unfunny as Fresh Prince‘s supporting characters are, their very abrasiveness makes them more interesting than Blossom‘s bland crew. In Blossom, the male characters could exchange each other’s lines and you wouldn’t notice — they’re all the same generic nice-guy wiseacre.

I’m convinced that one reason Fresh Prince‘s ratings have improved since its debut two years ago is that the series is one of the few on TV that consistently acknowledges a full range of African-American lives — all social and economic classes are represented, and they eye each other with both suspicion and sympathy. In a different way, Blossom is equally casually cross- cultural. Suburbanite Blossom dresses in an eccentric variation on inner- city style — lots of backwards baseball caps, huge hightops, extra-large T-shirts worn beneath small vests. In the opening scene of a recent episode, Blossom and her best friend, Six (Jenna von Oy), danced to a music video. The tune to which they were twisting their torsos like snakes was C+C Music Factory’s ”Things That Make You Go Hmmmm….”

Blossom picks up on black style by watching MTV — and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Really! She and Six are big fans) Will leads the sort of life in Bel Air that, back in Philadelphia, he thought only whites enjoyed. The so-called Fresh Prince-Blossom Hour, like so much television, offers absurdly idealized visions of American life. But its integrationist impulses, at least, seem both admirable and sincere. Could be funnier, though. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: B Blossom: C+

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
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