The past decade in television and film has illustrated Hollywood’s fondness for dark subject matter and gritty aesthetics.
Arguably, the most popular show on television right now is HBO’s Euphoria, a thoroughly grim teen drama in which every still looks like it could be pulled from a horror film. Before that, the CW’s Riverdale became a smash hit by turning the bright world of Archie Comics into a foggy noir. In 2019, grittiness as a visual shorthand for “authenticity” and “rawness” had seemingly reached a point of exhaustion with the divisive Todd Phillips movie Joker. In a viral sketch, Saturday Night Live lampooned the overly serious tone of the film by giving Oscar the Grouch his own “gritty” origin story. Similarly, there’s already been some exhaustion around Robert Pattison’s goth take on Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Batman film.
By the time it was announced that beloved 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was receiving a dark, melodramatic reboot based on a viral fan-made film, the jokes wrote themselves. (Quite literally, it was parodied in the same fashion as Joker on SNL just a few weeks ago).
Updating a mostly breezy comedy (with its signature moral moments) as a prestige drama can not only appear gratuitous and uninspired in our oversaturated reboot culture but condescending toward the previous format. Particularly in an era of “prestige” television where comedies can hardly be distinguished from dramas, it seems like Hollywood has lost faith in the ability of the genre to convey smart, interesting and heartbreaking observations about humanity without a sheen of melancholy or seriousness.
Refreshingly, Bel-Air, premiering on Peacock after Sunday’s Super Bowl, feels like a genuine (and oddly enough, fun) experiment with genre and tone rather than a correction or an attempt to intellectualize the show’s already multi-layered premise through dramatization. Unlike reboots like And Just Like That… and Gossip Girl that exhibit a weird disdain for their original characters or conceits and mindlessly bend to the internet’s criticisms, Bel-Air is a remake that truly appreciates its source material.
To be fair, this particular remake has a unique advantage. It helps that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a show that’s aged generally well by today’s standards (aside from some fatphobic jokes). In addition to obviously qualifying as “diverse,” the sitcom explored ideas about race, class and cultural differences within the Black community that are still relevant today. These debates have been further depicted and interrogated on modern shows like black-ish, #blackAF, Insecure and Atlanta with varying degrees of success. For Bel-Air (at least in the first three episodes), the series has a clear vision and execution in exploring these topics without getting distracted by its own commentary.
Executive produced by Morgan Cooper, who made the 2019 short film, and the original Fresh Prince Will Smith, Bel-Air stays true to the widely recited premise of a kid from West Philly whose “life got flipped turned upside down” with a few add-ons and embellishments. When we first meet Bel-Air’s Will, played by Jabari Banks, he’s a star basketball player on track for a Division 1 scholarship. Despite having a bright career ahead of him, Will values his reputation in Philly more than anything, to the point where he’s willing to risk potentially getting out of poverty for it. Hence, he allows a local enemy to get under his skin and, subsequently, has to prove himself in a game of basketball. As the story goes, the game turns violent, resulting in his arrest. Fortunately, he has a wealthy, well-connected uncle running for district attorney in Bel-Air who’s able to pull some strings and bail him out. And, well, you know the rest.
When Will arrives at the Banks residence, he’s greeted by the fabulous Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman), an art professor who constantly reminds us of her Philly heritage. The new family is mostly identical to the original with a few modern tweaks. As mentioned, there’s Phil Banks (Adrian Holmes), a D.A. candidate struggling to connect with Black voters. Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is a lacrosse player with a crippling anxiety problem. The formerly comically dense Hilary is now a savvy, business-minded culinary influencer. And Ashley (Akira Akbar) is still your average unassuming, good-natured kid. And of course, there’s Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), whose butler title has been appropriately updated to “house manager.”
“What was a largely comedic but still loaded dynamic between the cousins on the original series is more antagonistic and overtly political here.”
Out of all of Will’s new roommates, the series is primarily interested in the tension between him and Carlton. What was a largely comedic but still loaded dynamic between the cousins on the original series is more antagonistic and overtly political here. The age-old conflict between members of the Black community who choose to assimilate and those who choose their culture is more openly at play in their interactions with one another, particularly at the bougie private school they attend where Carlton is a popular student. In one rather telling scene, Will catches Carlton’s white friend Connor rapping the N-word in Carlton’s presence. When Will confronts him about it, Carlton ardently defends him, stating that rappers knowingly sell their music to white people.
These arguments have been seen all over Black television, particularly the “N-word” debate in recent years, often to tiring effect. Luckily, the show avoids long-winded commentary or exposition that’s central to programs like black-ish and #blackAF. Aside from that particular incident, Cooper is able to fill in aspects of Will and Carlton’s identities and illuminate their political leanings without long-winded debates or interactions with white people.
Similarly, we watch Phil navigate the same accusations that Will hurls at Carlton from Black constituents and longtime friends on the campaign trail. His critics are chiefly concerned about his wealth, his number of donors and his allegiance to his fraternity as opposed to the fact that he’s taking on an executive role in law enforcement and the implications it will have on their communities. It’s a weird area to neglect for a show that depicts police brutality and the nefarious role of police on school campuses. But a more complex interrogation of his role could lie ahead.
The dilemmas affecting the female members of the Banks family, at least at the beginning of the series, aren’t as dire as their male counterparts, primarily because they don’t find themselves in the same volatile situations. For example, we watch Hilary turn down a job with a culinary magazine because they don’t like her flashy appearance or her “ethnic” style of cooking, which is a workplace scenario we’ve seen Black characters endure a million times. However, the magnetism and humor of Coco Jones immediately demands viewers’ attention whenever she’s on-screen. Specifically, Jones captures the natural swag of a confident, young Black woman without sounding like a slang generator. (This is also a feat of the show’s writing). Additionally, Cassandra Freeman’s—who you may recognize from Atlanta’s “Juneteenth” episode”—take on Aunt Viv is delightful to consume while also hinting at layers of sadness and dissatisfaction that beg for more introspection.
Bel-Air primarily succeeds in its precision, concentration on narrative, and its characters above all. It’s easy to turn something as ripe with notions about race and class into a treatise on the Black experience or Black youth. But the show’s writers have more fun creating compelling storylines and building fascinating inner lives for these beloved characters than projecting a particular thesis. The reboot is a good antidote to a show like Euphoria that demands viewers piece together a lot of scattered images, dialogue and ideas to find a cohesive story. But Cooper and the show’s team of writers and directors are competent enough that we can simply enjoy ourselves.