Bel-Air, the Peacock drama spawned by Morgan Cooper’s viral short, is filled with nods to the original comedy and keeps its culture-shock premise. But the use of the beloved IP is a double-edged sword. The show has both a built-in audience—and critics. Bel-Air can’t avoid comparisons to the original, nor can the new versions of the members of the Banks family.
In its first three episodes, Bel-Air makes some brave choices that don’t all land. The character of Will Smith is still goofy as hell, but newcomer Jabari Banks shows the vulnerability under the bravado. Adrian Holmes’ Uncle Phil, less Shakespearean than the late James Avery and running for District Attorney, has straight-up boring scenes amongst all the drama. Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is now the villain—no longer the butt of the joke, but an utter asshole that makes you feel sorry that this will be part of his sweet forebear’s legacy. And Ashley (Akira Akbar) is just there, the woke preteen.
The two elder women of the Banks family, Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) and Hilary (Coco Jones), are the breaths of fresh air that a reboot like this needs. Both characters have been updated from the ’90s to 2022 while still keeping the essence of their Fresh Prince predecessors, though one is considerably different from her precursor. While some of Bel-Air’s characters would be weaker on their own, without any viewer knowledge of their TV pedigree, Hilary and Aunt Viv would still be the most compelling even if they were wholly new characters.
Bel-Air’s Aunt Viv is still the voice of reason, bridging the divide between Will and Uncle Phil’s drastically different worldviews. She’s the wealthy family’s biological connection to Will and to Philly, a point that the new series underscores with her use of Philly slang and scenes of her phone calls with her sister, Will’s mother. Her storyline is also expanded to mention more of her past; before she was Mrs. Philip Banks, the professor, Vivian was a talented artist. Seeing her with her own well-defined arc evokes the Aunt Viv dance clip, the brilliant woman filled with determination.
Hilary Banks has undergone far more changes from her Fresh Prince personality, but the ambitious and kind spirit underneath the previous iteration’s vapid exterior is still there. Still unemployed and fabulous, the new Hilary is a low-level Instagram influencer and part-time caterer, a plot point from the original series. (See season two’s “Hilary Gets A Life.”) She’s also more aware of how the world works, but her wokeness feels like a natural extension of her personality. When she calls out a prestigious food magazine for not wanting an “ethnic” audience, it’s not a jarring moment. It matches the uncompromising, idealistic teen presented so far.
Hilary and Aunt Viv’s central conflict involves their views on Hilary getting a job, which also recalls The Fresh Prince. Instead of just making jokes about a parent being exasperated that their child won’t leave the nest, Bel Air shows that the women’s views of work are at odds. Hilary will only do what she wants to do, and she’s grown up seeing creators and influencers who’ve become big thanks to their unique vision. Aunt Viv doesn’t agree, as it’s hinted she had to compromise a lot of herself to get where she is and build a comfortable life for her family.
The tension is very true to life, as young people refuse to comply with the racist, sexist, and/or queerphobic systems that their parents had to, in part because there was no other choice. A similar sentiment is shown in Will and Phil’s conversation on the basketball court, on whether the criminal justice system is broken or doing what it’s built to do, but that talk feels clumsy, while Vivian and Hilary’s argument after the sorority event is a natural conclusion of their actions up to that point. While Bel-Air has a lot to say about Blackness not being a monolith and assimilation versus disruption, Hilary and Aunt Viv’s arguments about the former’s future best establish the generational divide between the parents and children.
Bel-Air builds a lot of potential in the first three episodes, but most of the storylines have a clear path ahead. The series also offers some honest observations about Black life in 2022, ones that are typically unexplored in mainstream television. This Will, Phil, Vivian, Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley still have a long way to go before garnering the love the original Banks did, and there will definitely be massive, dramatic events along the way. But right now, Aunt Viv and Hilary are the only characters whose stories feel like they could branch off into several different directions, each of which would be exciting to follow, thanks to smart updates that maintain the essences of the originals.