The cast of the popular ’90s sitcom comes together for an oddly bittersweet look back.
30 years (and 2 months) ago, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted. While popular at the time, it has, in many ways, surpassed its original success. The series remains a recognizable pop culture touchstone for many, beginning with young Boomers and going all the way through to today’s Gen Zers. So HBO Max bringing the cast together for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion makes perfect sense. These days, the comfort nostalgia can bring is a very tempting balm indeed. Why not get together with some old sitcom friends, remember the salad days, and have some laughs?
Given that’s the attraction for many—if not most—the reunion’s tone will likely surprise viewers. It’s a program that seems mildly interested in the Prince’s beginnings and nearly completely disinterested in its heyday. Funny stories of auditions and Will Smith’s well-documented early habit of mouthing everyone’s lines quickly give way to sadder and more complex topics. You expect reunions to be all about the best of times. This one feels much more interested in endings and the bittersweet.
There is something admirable about that, to be sure. Giving us easy laughs and shallow delights would have been far easier and unlikely to garner any kind of complaints. By pushing deeper, they give the viewer a much more complicated take on the typical reunion show.
Some of this doesn’t work. For instance, how they touch on Fresh Prince’s history of tackling issues of race and class puzzles a bit. The discussion largely lacked specifics. Moreover, they often wandered into very actorly discussions about “playing truth” while only briefly referring to the larger socioeconomic, racial, and cultural issues they were engaging in. It is a strange tone, almost solipsistic. The players seem to get how moments like Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) and Will being profiled while driving was important, but no one seems to want to speak too specifically to that. One can appreciate a hesitance to overstate Fresh Prince’s importance, but it makes for an awkward balancing act.
The Reunion proves on better footing when it comes to looking back on James Avery, who played Uncle Phil. Avery died in 2013 and the loss comes across as still very present for his costars. You can feel them draw emotionally closer to one another as they discuss his role in their lives and the series. The moment of silence and sniffles that follow the tribute clip package proves by the far the special’s best and most affecting moment.
You expect reunions to be all about the best of times. This one feels much more interested in endings and the bittersweet.
Reunion also looks back on the acrimonious behind the scenes issues that led to Janet Hubert departing the show and Daphne Reid coming on as the “new” Aunt Viv. Her return is split into two segments, one where she and Smith talk alone for the first time since she left the show and, the second shortly after when she joins the rest of the cast back in the middle of the Fresh Prince’s house set. The heart to heart with Smith is effective. One can see how a myriad of external issues and poor communication led to both believing the other hated them. It appears to be one of those cases where both have some of the blame to shoulder but neither truly stands responsible.
The second segment feels considerably less satisfying. Her interactions with everyone else end up truncated when another “surprise” arrives. Ross Bagley, who played the 3rd season added youngest Banks child Nicky, makes a surprise drop-in, seemingly only moments after Hubert walks out. Given how they were never on the show at the same time and Bagley ends up with even less to do after his arrival than Hubert, it all ends up feeling very ill-timed.
The final season in general, and the last episode in specific, end up being the focal point more than any other season. Again, given a choice of avenues to pursue, the Reunion gravitates towards the show’s end, not its height. And even within that end, it pushes toward the bittersweet over the joyous. The story of the last episode that stands out most is DJ Jazzy Jeff admitted he couldn’t bring himself to attend the afterparty and instead immediately hopped a plane back home.
While series fans will likely delight to spend 75 minutes (yes, that long) with the Banks family, Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff), and Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), they should be ready for a reunion show that feels more reflective and less like a victory lap. There’s fun to be had here but not nearly as much as you might expect give how often the Fresh Prince made people laugh. In some ways, it fits 2020 perfectly; even our sitcom reunions feel heavy these days.
The Fresh Prince crew is getting their world flip turned upside down in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion now on HBOMax.