The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round One: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air vs. Gilmore Girls

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Danielle Henderson judges The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air versus Gilmore Girls. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

What we have here are two very different shows — one a laugh-tracked comedy about the displacement that occurs when an uprooted Philadelphia teen reluctantly moves in with his affluent relatives in ritzy Bel-Air, the other about a bookish teen and her formerly semi-delinquent mother trying to navigate societal expectations in a strange, weirdo-filled Connecticut hamlet — that intersect in an unexpected place, albeit one that wasn’t always the main thrust of the episodes: class issues.

For most of us, high school is the place where class differences are first played out — and having spent a portion of my poor-person life watching these shows, I realized a fundamental truth: I don’t care about rich kids. No, Us magazine, they’re not just like us, and in my real life, I reject anything trying to persuade me otherwise. I’m a little more patient in my TV-viewing life, but let’s be real — if you’ve ever been made fun of by a cartoonishly accurate mean girl for wearing discount jeans, you have to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief to engage with the monied aspects of either show. No matter what point of life you’re at while watching, you can’t help but think of your own high-school experience when watching high-school shows.

The fact that both shows felt comfortable talking about the issues that affect us culturally is a big deal. While it’s unquestionably a comedy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn’t exactly shy away from talking about issues with race. Even in the pilot, when Will accuses his Uncle Phil of forgetting where he came from, Phil reminds him that he used to attend Malcolm X speeches instead of just putting his poster on the wall like Will. Before the larger public discussion of racial profiling became the norm, there was a Fresh Prince episode where Will and his perpetually uptight cousin Carlton got pulled over for resembling criminals. (Uncle Phil, a powerful lawyer, came to the rescue.) Carlton is the butt of jokes for liking the nerdiest, seemingly whitest things (like golf and Tom Jones), and cousin Hilary’s Valley Girl realness results in her being widely dismissed, but the family’s many representations of what being black could mean served to undermine the fallacy of monolithic blackness. Will was an inner-city black kid still filled with all the bravado, humor, and confidence that made him unique even though he was forced to go to a posh, staid prep school. It’s part of the reason he always turned his jacket inside out — he’d follow along, but in his own way. For all the corny jokes and canned laughter, I think I dug that unintentionally radical turn the most.

Gilmore Girls had a similar radical vibe, but it was a little more in-your-face. Lorelai got pregnant at age 16; instead of becoming a child bride to Rory’s father, Christopher, she ran away a year after giving birth. She landed in the strange little town of Stars Hollow and lived in a potting shed behind the Independence Inn, where she started as a maid under the careful watch of mom-figure Mia until she eventually worked her way up to manager. Her evolution is pretty punk-rock, but Lorelai’s insistence on doing it herself helped her bond with Rory in a unique way. They’re on the same team, and, according to Rory, whose birth name is Lorelai, they have the same name for a reason: 

“It's my mother's name, too. She named me after herself. She was lying in the hospital, thinking about how men name boys after themselves all the time, you know, so why couldn't women? She says her feminism just kind of took over. Though, personally, I think a lot of Demerol also went into that decision.”

They even try to stay on the same side when Rory gets accepted to the Chilton Academy, forcing Lorelai to fix her mostly nonexistent relationship with her parents when they agree to pay for it in exchange for dinners together every Friday night.

Despite the wealthy disconnect, I loved these shows, and the way they included nontraditional families as part of the fabric of stories worth telling. The familiar trope of rich, distant relatives willing to finance your shambolic teenage life is the fifth-period-art-room Elmer’s glue of Will and Rory’s stories, but both shows approach their protagonist’s assimilation with big, gushy hearts full of love. High school might be the gauzy backdrop for the general turmoil and oppressive rules that come with suddenly being wealthy, but high school is what I’m here to judge, and judge I will. To level the playing field, my vote is parsed out by the things that tend to affect us all — even Will and Rory — the same way in high school, whether you’re driven to school by a chauffeur or piloting a rusted-out Chevette that you have to start with a pair of pliers (RIP, Trusty Rusty).

Geography
Few things matter more than where you live in high school. Are you close to a city, or stuck in the suburbs? Can you crack your window shade and read by streetlight after bedtime, or are you living on a dirt road so rural that you couldn’t even get cable until Obama took office? Your town affects your access to freedom, which shapes and defines who you might be. Bel-Air is the sunny California enclave filled with glitzy mansions and the very height of excess; it’s diametrically opposed to West Philadelphia, where Will maxed and relaxed on playgrounds growing up. There was still trouble to be found in Bel-Air — mistaken identity, busting up the family car, Zsa Zsa Gabor stealing your silverware — but Will learned to bend high school high jinks to his, uh, will in a way that may not have been successful elsewhere.

But who among us didn’t wish the Connecticut town of Stars Hollow actually existed? Rory would not have become Rory anywhere else. Even though she only really attended Stars Hollow High for her freshman year, no other place would have been safe for her to roam the streets with her face constantly in a book, or kept her full of the coffee that was surely stunting her growth. She was close enough to Hartford to get best friend Lane some contraband CDs from time to time on her way home from school, but she also reveled in the strange traditions that often took place around the gazebo in the center of town. Stars Hollow was big enough to cultivate Rory’s unique spirit, but small enough to ensure it could never contain her. Rory had the best of both worlds.
Advantage: Gilmore Girls

Family and friends
The cool thing about both shows is that they expertly deal with the tension between the biological family and the logical one. Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino avoids the pitfalls of the typical single-mom narrative by focusing on the myriad supportive ways Lorelai and Rory grew up together. They’re closer than a mother and daughter have ever been on TV, but from the very beginning, they cultivated relationships with the entire town to help them survive. It really did take a village to raise them both, much to Lorelai’s parents’ initial dismay. Who would they have been without Miss Patty’s saucy exploits, Babette’s fixation on her pets, Luke’s gruff but loving insistence that they both eat more vegetables, Kurt’s endless stream of strange jobs, Sookie’s delicious wackiness, and Taylor Doose’s insistence on formality?

The family the Gilmores created was closer to their heart than the one they were born into, and friendships often feel like that in high school. In Bel-Air, Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil not only took Will in at a time of great need, they exposed him to different pathways in life that he may never have taken. He doesn’t necessarily need to get along with cousins Hilary, Carlton, or Ashley all the time to feel all the familial love they can muster. The Banks family taught Will a lesson about unconditional love that he may not have learned otherwise, which is an important weapon in the arsenal of high-school emotion.
Advantage: Fresh Prince

School
High-school shows mostly focus on the interior lives of teenagers, but both The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Gilmore Girls widen the scope by making us look at what’s happening around them. Will is pretty popular at Bel-Air Prep, so most of his school scenes emphasize his extreme coolness. Rory has it a little tougher at the Chilton Academy. She first has to contend with the fact that her mom is dating her English teacher, and then school bully Paris makes her life a living hell when she finds out. Rory is also kind of being stalked by Tristan, the punky prep who loves her but still insists on making her life hell when she turns him down. Rory’s high-school experience seems more realistic — you’re forced into awkward situations all day long with people you barely know, many of whom seem like they’re out to get you — so she gets the points here. 

Advantage: Gilmore Girls

Bullies
Beyond just surrounding you with people you can’t stand, high school often cultivates actual bullies, people hardwired into your life in order to make every movement and decision more frightening or difficult. The weird thing is that Will might be the biggest bully on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I mean, he does help Ashley get through her troubles with a bully at school, but Will himself spends a lot of his time tormenting his uncle and making fun of his cousins. On Gilmore Girls, however, you have Michel, the prototypically snobby French concierge at the Independence Inn, and Paris Geller, possibly the greatest and most relatable TV bully of all time. She’s like an impatient 80-year-old woman reluctantly crammed into the body of a teenager. Once Paris realized that Rory didn’t want Tristan and saw Rory’s intelligence was a boon to them both, she turned into her best friend, which is a lesson I wish more girls took to heart.

Advantage: Gilmore Girls

Love
Even though both shows let their high-schoolers grow up, go to college, become engaged, and start to figure out their place in the world, I’m leaning toward the show with the more realistic amount of heartbreak and drama. Will dated, a LOT, and seemed to be the better man for it. He proposed to girlfriend Lisa (Nia Long) in college after taking a bullet for Carlton (which seemed to show him what life was really worth), but his high-school exploits varied from episode to episode. He dated Queen Latifah but was too embarrassed that his friends would think she was fat, did a full Mrs. Robinson with Pam Grier, and had an impressive flavor-of-the-week style arsenal for a couple of seasons. Will had fun, but high-school love is not about fun; it’s about unrequited crushes, and the feeling of having your heart torn open around every corner. Rory had the more meaningful high-school love experience. I mean, she and new boyfriend Jess crashed a car her ex-boyfriend Dean built for her, only for her to later lose her virginity to Dean during an affair after he already married someone else. That’s the kind of high-school-based messiness that truly shapes lives, for better or worse.

Winner: GILMORE GIRLS

Danielle Henderson is a TV writer, pop-culture critic, and the creator of Feminist Ryan Gosling.