On September 20, 1993 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired episode one of season four.
The show documented the comedic hijinks of Will Smith (played by Will Smith), a
street-savvy kid from Philadelphia who went to live in a Los Angeles mansion with his aunt and uncle (Vivian and Phillip Banks), and their children (Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley).
Season three ended with Will Smith and Carlton Banks graduating from high school, so, predictably, the new season began with Will and Carlton heading off to college and getting a “crib” of their very own.
In those days the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — the only channel our family’s rabbit ears could pick up — aired a Fresh Prince rerun every weekday, after school. I was just starting Grade 7 and the antics of Will Smith and Co. were a staple of my late-afternoons.
However, Mondays were a real treat because in the evenings a new episode of Fresh Prince would hit the screen, and if I pretended my homework was finished I could watch it.
Picture me in September 1993 with the brutal realities of junior high beginning to breathe down my neck. If nothing else, Fresh Prince would offer me some consistency and comfort during the trials and tribulations that lay ahead.
Or so I thought.
While watching the first episode of the new season I be came keenly aware that something was wrong.
It wasn’t the theme song; that hadn’t changed. And Wil l was still directing short-jokes at Carlton and fat-jokes at Uncle Phil. But who was this strange woman? And why was Will
calling her Aunt Viv?
Vivian was a no-nonsense matriarch in the Banks’ household, and since the beginning
of the series in September 1990 she had been played with sassy gusto by Janet Hubert-Whitten.
Now, three years later, Hubert-Whitten was nowhere to be found. Instead, the person everyone was calling Vivian was being played by Daphne Reid. I was sad and angry.
For starters, Hubert-Whitten and Reid don’t even look alike; Reid’s complexion is far lighter and she is eight years older than Hubert-Whitten.
Furthermore, the sudden transmutation of a close family member raised a squadron of ethical and metaphysical questions:
Was the real Vivian kidnapped and replaced?
Was the family complicit in this kidnapping?
Had Vivian undergone a Kafkaesque metamorphosis during the night?
Why wasn’t the FBI poking around?
These felt like important questions that demanded answers, but the characters on screen had no interest in the surreal alteration of their family unit.
The only hint that something was amiss came from Will’s best friend, Jazz.
“You know Mrs. Banks… there’s something different about you,” he said.
This caused Will to glance sheepishly towards the camera. The laugh-track roared — as if the mysterious disappearance of one’s aunt was a joking matter.
Of course, my initial outrage dulled with time and I came to accept this new person as
Vivian Banks. Meanwhile, Fresh Prince continued as a serviceable sit-com with Daphne Reid for three more seasons.
In fact, with all said-and-done the Internet Movie Database credits Reid with 75 episodes as Vivian Banks while Janet Hubert-Whitten is only credited with 74.
Still, if you are out there, Janet Hubert-Whitten, I want you to know this: you will always
be the real Vivian Banks in my books.