Home » ‘Bel-Air’ Review – A Promising Start

‘Bel-Air’ Review – A Promising Start

by Ron Hilliard
Will Smith (Jabari Banks) makes his way to the Bel-Air to stay with his aunt and uncle in a taxi driven by Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) in the new Fresh Prince remake BEL-AIR, streaming on Peacock.

Hollywood, for the past decade or so, has not come across an old beloved franchise or film that they did not want to dig up and make dance for old and new audiences alike. It’s a bit macabre, but nothing sells quite like the nostalgia. Now, thanks to Peacock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the latest in a long line of such remakes. 

Bel-Air, conceptually, is interesting. The series was initially conceived by Morgan Cooper via a fan-made trailer the director released on YouTube in 2019. Cooper then presented a much more mature take of the 90s sitcom that we grew up watching. In lieu of the comedic tone, Cooper opted to lean into the dramatic. Exploring themes that, while present in Fresh Prince, were not written with such severity (among them gang violence, the class disparity between Will and his wealthy relatives, and acclimating to predominantly white spaces). The trailer was met with praise for the direction and for Cooper’s grounding of the material in an unexpected yet effective way. In addition to the millions of views it garnered, it was also noticed by the Fresh Prince himself, inevitably leading us to Peacock’s newest streaming exclusive, helmed by showrunners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson.

As in the original sitcom, Will does get into one little fight, and his mom does get scared. However, instead of this information being relegated to the theme song, Bel-Air spends the first third of episode one actually showing us these events in detail. Will (Jabari Banks) is a charismatic young man, well-known and liked in his neighborhood. He’s on his way to getting himself a basketball scholarship for an out-of-state college, something his mother encourages him to accept. Will, though, is hesitant about leaving West Philly as he’s made his mark there and doesn’t want to have to start over.

The decision to leave or not is taken out of his hands once he gets into an altercation with a drug dealer, having a gun pulled on him. After this, his mother immediately arranges for him to be flown to Bel-Air to live with his Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) and her family. This premise worked in the original Fresh Prince because it wasn’t treated with much seriousness or really explored beyond the opening theme. In this more grounded iteration, it seems a bit sudden and stretches credulity. But the rest of the episode follows similar beats to the original pilot. Jazz (Jordan L. Jones), an LA taxi driver, takes Will to his relative’s luxurious mansion, and one by one he’s introduced to his estranged family. 

The teen drama show space is competitive right now. Euphoria, All-American, Gossip Girl, and Outer Banks, to name a few, are all doing well. But from just the first few episodes, it’s rather unclear whether Peacock has what it takes to compete with any of these with Bel-Air. What makes it unique, however, is that unlike a lot of modern teen dramas, at the heart of this one, it’s about family. Specifically about a Black family. This was also at the core of the original series and in that sense, Bel-Air is successful.

Indeed, in many ways, Bel-Air feels familiar to the classic sitcoms that centered on Black families that were popular in the late 90s and early 00s. Having said that, the new Banks’ family relationships in Bel-Air still feel modern and can at times be wonderfully nuanced. The casting of the Banks family is actually one of the show’s undeniable strengths. Will’s cousins Carlton (Olly Sholotan), Ashley (Akira Akbar), and Hilary (Coco Jones) are all great and play off Jabari Banks’ Will well. Sholotan’s Carlton, in particular, has a simmering animosity for Will, who he sees as everything he’s not and wants to be.

Carlton Banks (Olly Sholotan) and Will Smith (Jabari Banks) stand together in a library wearing school uniforms in the new Fresh Prince reboot on Peacock, BEL-AIR.
Olly Sholotan and Jabari Banks in ‘Bel-Air’ courtesy of Peacock

Out of the entire Banks family, the casting that is perhaps the most interesting is Adrian Holmes’ Uncle Phil. He is younger than James Avery’s Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince, and that alone changes their relationship considerably. He’s now more easily able to communicate and relate to Will, which leads to some great moments between the two in the later episodes, with Uncle Phil quickly settling into his role as Will’s father figure. This, of course, also adds to Carlton’s feelings of resentment for Will, building tension between the two in the process. This new and tense dynamic between Will and Carlton is the basis for a lot of the show’s ongoing drama, and is by far the easiest plotline to get invested in.

In fact, Will’s interactions with Uncle Phil and Carlton facilitate some of the show’s better moments. For instance, in this version, Uncle Phil is a young, prominent lawyer running for district attorney in Los Angeles, a goal that is often at odds with being Will’s guardian. He wants to support Will and be there for him, but he also doesn’t want Will’s drama to interfere with his chances of becoming district attorney. Yet, to his surprise, Will’s charisma and spontaneity end up helping him secure an important vote from the community, further developing their bond.

Will’s relationship with Carlton is the most interesting and complicated. The cousins are of a similar age, but could not be any more different. Carlton grew up around mostly white peers, and for more reasons the show is bound to explore, has conservative politics. Where Will plays basketball and bonds with his Uncle over it, Carlton plays lacrosse and never got into basketball when his father encouraged him to. Carlton and his ex broke up, and as soon as Will gets to town, he’s wooed her. Carlton also has an addiction problem, which spirals the more and more he feels Will taking up the spotlight at school and at home. All of this friction leads to the cousins butting heads more often than not, and Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv forcing them to spend time together and get along.

Although this is a more nuanced approach to Will’s antics with the Banks family, it remains to be seen if this Peacock exclusive will be able to further carve out its own identity while at the same time engaging old and new audiences alike. Based on the first few episodes, Bel-Air is still struggling to find its identity, and when the writing isn’t beholden to what came before it really starts to shine. What made the original Fresh Prince work so well was that even though it was a comedy, it did explore serious topics, and because of the juxtaposition between the levity and drama, these more solemn moments felt more impactful. It was altogether unique. If Bel-Air hopes to live on just as fondly in people’s memories twenty years from now, as its predecessor does, it’s going to have to take a lot more bold steps.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Bel-Air Streams premieres Sunday Feburary on Peacock!

Follow writer Ron Hilliard on Twitter: @darkmotifs

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