There’s no doubt that Hollywood remains obsessed with reboots. Despite all the new content out there begging to be made, the industry would rather manipulate our love of nostalgia by bringing back the old, or trying to right the wrongs of its very white past by sprinkling in people of color to be “woke.” Often it doesn’t work (see: And Just Like That… and Gossip Girl). But there are those rare times when reboots do succeed, whether they follow the formula of the original series, like 2021’s Saved By The Bell, or honor the show’s legacy while respectfully turning the thing on its head, as with Devon Greggory’s The Game revival. Thankfully, Peacock’s Bel-Air falls into the latter category.
Like its predecessor, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air starring Will Smith, Bel-Air is an endearing fish-out-of-water story. The new Will (brilliantly played by Jabari Banks) has a run-in with a local West Philly gang on the basketball court, which lands him in jail and his life in danger. Worried about what will happen if her baby stays in the city, his mother begs her sister and brother-in-law to make his charges go away and let him live with them across the country in Bel-Air. Within the walls of their sprawling mansion, Will reunites the Banks family: Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv; cousins Hillary, Carlton, Ashley; and Geoffrey, who’s now the “house manager.”
While Bel-Air pays homage to the original, weaving in tiny, yet meaningful threads of the past—e.g., Will wearing his prep school jacket inside out—it is a complete reimagining. Inspired by Morgan Cooper’s 2019 viral trailer and executive produced by Cooper, T.J. Brady, and Rasheed Newson, this version rids itself of the laugh track, the 30-minute runtime, and multi-cam format, and replaces them with a gorgeously shot, much darker hour-long drama. The show still has some joy but isn’t afraid to raise the stakes and dig deeper into issues around race, class, drug addiction, and violence, where the original could only scratch the surface. And whether intentional or not, Bel-Air addresses the colorism from the original series by casting mostly dark-skinned actors to play the Banks family. This reboot is thoughtfully and delicately filling in the gaps that its precursor, a ’90s network sitcom created by two white writers, left behind.
One of Bel-Air’s best innovations is meeting Will in his own environment before he’s whisked away to California. Will still reps for his city and has that jokester charm, but this time around, he’s more focused: A straight-A student and basketball star being recruited by out-of-state D1 schools. But we learn that he doesn’t want to leave the city he calls home, the only city he knows. The series subtly ensures we understand his struggle as he straddles the old world he misses and the strange new one he’s being forced to navigate. We also get a clearer understanding of how much danger he’s in, even if it’s from afar. Most importantly, Banks isn’t imitating Smith’s Will. The 23-year-old has captured a similar spark, but confidently steps into his own lovable creation, commanding your attention the second he hits the screen.
While the series centers on Will’s journey, it also spends quality time asking hard questions about how well the Banks are surviving in the world they’ve created for themselves. Despite the cars, clothes, good grades, and fast track to the Ivy League, there is a cost for this type of disposable wealth and proximity to whiteness—and Carlton is paying a steep physical and emotional price. We’re no longer laughing at his out-of-touch conservative ways, naivete around race and corny dancing; he’s more like a cautionary tale that spirals out even more when Will checks him for his Candace Owens-esque ways. Add in Carlton’s ego and jealousy of Will, and you have a recipe for a potentially dangerous rivalry. Olly Sholotan, also a star in the making, is utterly sublime as the villain who may be on the brink of a breakdown.
Though he’s still prickly and has very little patience for Will’s nonsense, Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) also differs a bit from the original—and not just physically. This Uncle Phil would never invite former President Ronald Reagan (or Trump) to any party of his. That, and he’s much more in tune with his Blackness, escaping into his man cave with Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), smoking cigars, playing pool, sipping whiskey, and listening to A Tribe Called Quest. However, 2022 Uncle Phil is hyperaware of how as a Black man of his stature and reputation must present in order to succeed in this white world. As someone running for district attorney, perception and winning are everything, so he wears “the mask,” and because of it, like Will, he finds himself straddling two worlds. However, his Black world, including people from his college fraternity days, has a hard time cutting him any slack or backing him in the upcoming election.
Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) wonderfully embodies the bougie of her Bel-Air present and the ratchet of her West Philly past as she struggles with finding her own identity outside of her husband, children and socioeconomic status. But it’s Hilary’s shift that feels the most refreshing. Coco Banks’ Hillary is given much more to work with and has more agency. She’s still a college dropout, living in her parent’s pool house on their dime, and is addicted to fashion. But she has a tangible dream she’s working toward: to be an influencer chef, using the recipes from the Black women in her family to pave her way to success. Unlike her brother, Hilary isn’t hoodwinked and can and will call a racist spade a racist spade.
Despite all that it gets right, Bel-Air is still up against a lot. Taking on an iconic TV show like Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air is wildly ambitious—and risky. Many Black millennials and Gen-Xers are fiercely protective of “the culture”; The Fresh Prince and Will Smith holds a special place in our hearts and childhoods. So, the very thought of “playing around” with this legacy might turn off potential viewers who might also be reboot fatigued. For younger Black viewers who crave Euphoria’s grittiness, but don’t fully see themselves in that delicious mostly-white nonsense, they may not have the same connection to these iconic characters as the older generation does. Is this something they want—or are willing to pay $4.99 to see on Peacock?
Most importantly, despite Black Twitter losing its collective mind when Cooper’s concept video went viral nearly three years ago—for better or worse—the current conversation around what Black folks want to consume has shifted. Perhaps this is why, when Bel-Air’s trailer dropped last month, the response felt less than enthusiastic, with people using the phrase “trauma porn” and wondering who the show was for. Still, if you’re willing to carve out space for both the original and its timely successor, you’ll find promising, innovative storytelling that pays off, and then some.