Bel-Air turns the original upside down, but it isn’t exactly a breath of fresh air

Bel-Air (Peacock)

Peacock stops chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool with this serious, dramatic remake.

Over the course of the first three episodes of Bel-Air—Peacock’s downbeat reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a modern, self-serious prestige-adjacent drama flipping the script on the original comedy’s inherently sulky premise—new kid on the block Will Smith (played with smooth-as-ever charm by Jabari Banks) plays basketball, dodges a gang hit, and contends with an obnoxious cousin who is seemingly his complete opposite. So is this dramatization really all that different from the culturally-defining ’90s sitcom? The answer, like the show itself, is complicated.

The updated rhythms of Bel-Air are apparent from the jump. A lot has stayed the same, but so much has changed, as the show eventually spins off into its own, quirk-less territory, often mimicking many a Freeform drama more-so than its partial namesake. Basically, Bel-Air is “mature” in an immature way. Drugs, strong language, and violence ease into the show’s light-hearted fish-out-of-water narrative rather easily, infusing a necessary edge and intrigue to a show that would otherwise lack any real purpose or opportunity for insight, offering something to say in 2022 that a network primetime series couldn’t fully address in 1990.

Developed by Will Smith and Morgan Cooper after a parody video introduced the concept in 2019, Bel-Air follows the story fans of the show know as well as the lyrics to the opening number. Will is a smart, but hot-headed high school student with a promising career in basketball, assuming he can keep his head down around his West Philadelphia neighborhood. After “one little fight” (which lands Will in jail), his mother arranges for him to be whisked off to the house (well, mansion) of his rich aunt and uncle and their kids in Los Angeles.

Bel-Air (Peacock)
BEL-AIR — “Yamacraw” Episode 103 — Pictured: (l-r) Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks, Jabari Banks as Will — (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

Will has to adjust to his new, upscale surroundings, while also getting to know a family he barely recognizes and vice-versa. Unlike the original series, he hits it off famously with oldest cousin Hilary (played by rapper/songwriter Coco Jones), reworked in Bel-Air as an Instagram influencer with a cooking line, because low-hanging fruit and all that. Youngest cousin Ashley (played by Captain Marvel‘s Akira Akbar) gets little to do in the show’s first few episodes but is still the lovable, agreeable preteen who takes to Will right away. 

All this immediate, cousinly love is probably necessary because Bel-Air quickly introduces a heated, melodramatic rivalry between Will and middle cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan from Run Hide Fight), who trades the original’s goofy sidekick persona for a reptilian shell of ticking clock villainy. There couldn’t be less chemistry between these two actors, and that’s obviously the idea. From the moments they lay eyes on each other, a battle of wits, guts, and, ahem, will, begins. 

Bel-Air spends much of its time setting up said rivalry to be the driving conflict of the season, but there’s also a political campaign, some mother-daughter bickering over career choices (with a fantastic showcase from stage actress Cassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks), and a few ghosts from Philly who might come back to haunt Will and the rest. The show certainly ramps up its racial politics a good deal, setting up a clear and uncomfortable tension between Will and his uncle, Phillip Banks (19-2‘s Adrian Holmes). The show does find some of its groove in navigating glimpses of change in how the relationship between these two characters—which was the heart and soul of Fresh Prince, to be clear—naturally grows into a possibility for affection and acceptance. But not without plenty of challenges and ideological debates along the way. 

Bel-Air (Peacock)
BEL-AIR — “Keep Ya Head Up” Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Jabari Banks as Will, Adrian Holmes as Phillip Banks — (Photo by: Greg Gayne/Peacock)

The odd thing about Bel-Air isn’t what it gets wrong. It’s what the show chooses to get right. The inverted tone sets up a strong case for the reboot’s very existence, deconstructing the veneer of ’90s nostalgia for a more honest examination of class warfare within Black communities, and how they differ so greatly from coast to coast. It’s early goings, but the show only dances with these topics in the most superficial, glossed-over fashion, with little improvement from episode to episode. Bel-Air is clearly more entertained by its own entertainment value, which is a natural benefit for a series that likely become an effortless binge for mainstream viewers. But without more substance, it’s hard to imagine Bel-Air having even a fraction of the staying power it desires, especially compared to Peacock’s similarly reimagined Saved by the Bell redux. 

Yes, the show has its fair amount of embarrassing air balls, mainly the Easter eggs and overly wrought nods to the original. When Will has to cite “born and raised” with a stone-cold face, you know these writers just couldn’t resist being jarringly self-aware, as every episode seems to have at least one Star Wars: The Force Awakens moment. The fundamental issue with Bel-Air is that its entire mission statement is to say something new with something old, to be the other side of the original’s coin. But Bel-Air is a funhouse mirror, not just comparing itself to the source material, but a whole list of interchangeable, out-of-style teen angst dramas with soundtracks that are probably better in their totality than the show itself.

These issues hold Bel-Air back from riches, but they certainly don’t ruin what will likely draw people to take a shot on the show. And that’s the generational promise of reconnecting with these characters, many of whom are sorely missed (not to mention strapping in for a more subversive pivot to what made the original so fondly remembered). It wasn’t just the characters and excellent acting and writing. It was how the show found joy in the drama, and drama in the joy. You can’t really have one without the other. So far, Bel-Air only wants to sit right there with the latter.

Bel-Air premieres on Super Bowl Sunday with three episodes on Peacock, with new episodes streaming weekly.

Bel-Air Trailer:

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Jon Negroni

Author, Film/TV critic, and host of the Cinemaholics podcast. Other bylines include Atom Tickets, The Young Folks, and your discontent.

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