Here’s a story all about how The Fresh Prince got flipped, turned upside down, and rebooted as Bel-Air – a dramatic take on the classic comedy, swapping its sitcom stylings for something a little more serious.
In 2019, director Morgan Cooper made Bel-Air, a trailer for an imagined reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The short film was only ever intended to be a portfolio piece, an eye-catching showcase for Cooper’s skills rather than a legitimate pitch for a new version of The Fresh Prince; when Cooper uploaded the video to YouTube, however, it went viral, and caught the attention of Will Smith. Smith was interested in pursuing it as a genuine production, and in 2020 there was a bidding war between streaming services Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max and Apple TV+ for the rights to air the series. Peacock, the online wing of The Fresh Prince’s original home NBC, won out and gave Bel-Air an upfront two-season order – and now here we are.
Prior to its release, the series hasn’t inspired confidence so much as light mockery and general bewilderment: what impressed people as a viral video raised eyebrows as a fully-fledged television drama. Bel Air was treated somewhere between a Saturday Night Live sketch that had gotten out of hand, and a faintly desperate gamble from a new streaming service latching onto the first recognisable intellectual property it could turn into something bigger (and, more importantly, monetizable).
Really, it seemed like just about everything could go wrong for Bel-Air. The original series aired a hundred and forty-eight episodes across six years, and it’s been repeated in syndication for decades; it and its characters aren’t just loved but familiar, and any attempt to reinvent or reinterpret those characters in a drama would always struggle against how well-defined their sitcom predecessors were. The most surprising thing Bel-Air could do, really, is turn out to be… actually good.
For the most part, it turns out, the series… is pretty good.
Admittedly there’s a basic weirdness it can’t quite get past, at least for the first episode; the series begins by, in effect, taking the jazzy neon colours of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s opening rap and expanding it to become instead a twenty-minute prologue to set the scene for the prestige drama. If you didn’t already know the scene – literally know the words to the theme song, probably – it wouldn’t be anywhere near as distracting as it is, because in a vacuum it’s a perfectly acceptable and well-directed start to the series. For the most part, it’s clear enough that Bel-Air’s producers know that: when the title card arrives fifteen minutes in, Déjà vu plays underneath it, a hat-tip to the audience who really have seen it all before… even if not like this exactly.
It settles as the series goes on (though that’ll probably take longer the more familiar you are with the original sitcom) and after a while it’s easy to, if not forget the original, but reconcile the two takes. On paper the premise offers plenty of dramatic material to mine (as the original often did, in fairness), and Bel-Air is quick to underline its ideas about community, identity, and class and bring them to the forefront – if you’re inclined to give Bel-Air a chance, it’s clearly gesturing at some interesting themes, and will likely get some strong material out of it.
Bel-Air’s real strength, though, is its new fresh prince Jabari Banks. Here, Banks takes on what is probably the single most difficult role on any television show currently airing – or certainly the one that’s bringing with it the greatest weight of expectations. The main selling point for the original, after all, was the sheer charisma of Will Smith, who’s since gone on to become one of the last true movie stars. Living up to that would be difficult for anyone, but particularly if you’re being asked to play one of Smith’s most iconic roles.
Banks rises to it, though, offering a performance that’s never an impersonation of Smith even as it’s clearly influenced by him. It’s a different sort of charm, but a similar sort of immediate likeability - Banks as Smith has a real winning personality, with a big smile and endearing friendliness. There’s an easy lightness to his portrayal, not as dark and gritty as advertised; Banks is clearly comfortable with the comic demands of the part (perhaps moreso than the dramatic aspects, but the balance is less stark than you’d think anyway). It’s still strange hearing other characters call him Will Smith – though more in the same way it’d be strange to have an acquaintance called Tom Cruise, or watch a movie where the lead character just happens to be called Brad Pitt – but he holds the show together well.
Maybe it’s just a case of meeting low expectations – seeming better than it is by not being as bad as people had feared – but Bel-Air does, on the whole, pretty much work. It’s worth checking out, even if only to see how the experiment goes and what it starts to become as it continues – and whether it might ever be able to take The Fresh Prince’s crown.
Bel-Air begins on Peacock on 12 February in the US. Peacock is available via Sky in the UK, where Bel-Air will begin on 13 February. I’ve seen three of a total of seven episodes before writing this review.
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