The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Will Smith and Carlton Banks may be close cousins, but do they count as friends after everything they’ve been through?
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is known for adding many iconic characters and trends to popular culture, including making Will Smith a household name in the acting world, and the hilarious Carlton dance perfected by Alfonso Ribeiro’s Carlton Banks. The fish out of water sitcom follows Will Smith’s journey as he moves from West Philadelphia to Bel-Air, California, and the series’ six season run is still beloved by fans 30 years after the show first premiered.
While the show began as Will’s story, over time, it clearly transforms to tell both Will’s and Carlton’s journeys – both together, and independently. But no matter how the series may end with these two young men on good terms, it’s clear that Will and Carlton are hardly friendship goals. In fact, they may not really be friends at all.
Will constantly makes fun of Carlton’s height
Iconic comedy duos often make use of polar opposites: skinny and fat, serious and straight, tall and short. But in the case of Carlton and Will, Fresh Prince only ever highlights the height difference between the two young men, and only ever at Carlton’s expense.
Will takes every opportunity he can to make fun of Carlton’s diminutive stature, an easy task since Smith has an 8 inch advantage over Ribeiro, at 6’2″ to 5’6″. He even mocks Carlton’s clothing as being from the children’s department, and often outright implies that his cousin is a child, too.
They undermine each other’s career goals
Once Will and Carlton reach college in the series’ fourth season, their bickering often takes on a new, ultimately destructive undercurrent. The two of them often find themselves at odds with one another, vying for the same positions.
Whether aiming for managerial roles at the Peacock student center on campus at ULA, or hoping to work their way up in the entertainment world on the set of Hilary’s talk show, Will and Carlton are both truly ruthless when it comes to undermining each other in order to get the promotions they feel they deserve.
Carlton hates Will’s popularity
From the moment that Will sets foot at Bel-Air Academy, Carlton’s world and his status quo as a popular intellectual are forever changed. Will isn’t any competition for Carlton in terms of making it to the top of the class, but he steals the spotlight from Carlton without ever really trying.
Will is the guy that everyone wants to be friends with and learn coolness tips from, even the nerdiest members of Carlton’s crew. It’s no wonder that this becomes a point of contention for the two teens on many occasions.
Will hates Carlton’s nerdiness
Just as Carlton hates and ultimately envies Will’s social skills, Will never wastes an opportunity to make it clear just how little he thinks of his cousin for being a proud nerd. Whether making fun of his participation in an acapella group or his penchant for sucking up to every teacher, Will doesn’t hesitate to make fun of Carlton’s academic pursuits.
But the mockery doesn’t stop outside the school. Will constantly belittles Carlton’s fashion choices, and in particular his sweaters; looks down on his dancing skills and love of Tom Jones; and questions his love of economics and politics.
They physically fight each other often
Boys very well may be boys, but Will and Carlton definitely get physical with each other far too often. Take for example the episode “The Cold War.” After Carlton and Will both come down with a cold, due to the same girl (Carlton’s recent ex, Will’s new fling), the two are forced to room together in the Banks family pool house.
What follows is absolute madness and physical violence for minutes on end as the sickly and angry teenagers take out their rage and trust issues on each other.
Carlton looks down on Will for being poor
The central culture clash at the heart of Fresh Prince finds inner city kid Will acclimating to life in the land of luxury in Bel Air. But Will’s struggle to adjust to life in the Banks family isn’t made any easier by cousin Carlton, who makes fun of Will for growing up poor and, as he assumes, uneducated.
He makes fun of Will’s Philadelphia roots both in private and in public, and even harshly compares Will to Will’s own deadbeat father in one of the lowest moments in the entire series for Carlton’s character.
They get each other arrested
Just a few episodes into the series, Will and Carlton wind up getting arrested on one of their first adventures together as they drive Uncle Phil’s coworker’s car across town for him. It’s one of the series’ more serious episodes, exploring racism and privilege in different ways.
But it shows that these two have the potential to get themselves in trouble from the very beginning. And there is plenty more trouble to found over the course of the show, including drug use, underage stripping, underage gambling, and more.
Will gets shot protecting Carlton and Carlton resents him
While stopping at an ATM prior to a planned camping trip, Will and Carlton are held at gunpoint. Carlton fumbles in protest of the hold up, and Will quickly inserts himself to protect his cousin, winding up shot and being hospitalized in the process.
Carlton, in turn, rebels and distances himself from Will, resenting both his cousin and their damaged society for all that has occurred. It’s a dark storyline that leads to one of the more harrowing confrontations between cousins, as Will pleads with Carlton to give up his newly purchased gun, and possibly saves his cousin’s life again in the process.
Will doesn’t think Carlton is “Black enough”
Fresh Prince doesn’t shy away from exploring racism and all its violent forms. But the series still nevertheless makes light of Will’s own inherently racist acts of colorist mocking at Carlton’s expense.
From the very beginning of the series, it’s clear that Will doesn’t think Carlton is “Black enough.” He calls his cousin horrible names, openly insinuates that his cousin may actually be white, and questions his understanding of key elements of the Black experience and Black history. It all comes to a head in an episode in which Will and Carlton pledge for the same fraternity, only for Carlton to be rejected due to not fitting the fraternity’s own colorist standards.
Will is responsible for Carlton overdosing
Fresh Prince, like many 1990s sitcoms, has plenty of Very Special Episodes within its canon. But one of its darkest and most emotional features a key reason as to why it’s hard to think of Will and Carlton as real, true friends.
In the third season episode “Just Say Yo,” Will is directly responsible for Carlton overdosing on the night of their prom. After taking a large dose of what he believed to be vitamins, but were in fact caffeine pills, from Will’s locker, Carlton overdoses publicly at their school and winds up being hospitalized.