REVIEW: ‘Bel-Air’ is a fresh take on the Will Smith classic, but is it necessary?

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

Peacock’s newest original series “Bel Air” reboots “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” for the modern day. At a time where reboots are frequent and subjected to comparisons to predecessors, “Bel-Air” has a lot to live up to for “Fresh Prince” fans. Rather than being a straight recreation, or a sitcom like the original, “Bel-Air” is a grounded and dramatic reimagining that does away with the more comedic aspects. Given the original’s iconic status in pop culture, many may question if this reboot is necessary. The three-episode premiere makes the premise timely and adds more depth than before, but it also makes questionable decisions along the way.

Like the original series, the story follows a fictionalized Will Smith (Jabari Banks), a young native and successful high school athlete from West Philadelphia who is sent to live with his wealthy relatives in Bel-Air in Los Angeles, California. After Will gets arrested for discharging a firearm to protect his friend in a street basketball game gone awry, his Uncle Philip Banks (Adrian Holmes) pulls a few strings to get him released. Will must evade the angry Philadelphia drug dealer he pulled a gun on and adjust to a new setting at a prestigious high school. In the current episodes, Will finds himself pitted against his cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan) for popularity and respect, as well as Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv’s (Cassandra Freeman) affection. 

The show follows similar themes of privilege and identity as its predecessor, but it is more recurrent here. The episodes see Will undergo culture shock as he settles into Bel-Air. Though this new lifestyle is luxurious and dream-like, Will struggles to hold on to his hard knocks roots from Philadelphia. Ironically, it is these very roots that land him in the position where he has to leave his home. Will’s background also brings him into conflict with other characters such as Carlton, the school resource officer who profiles him and Connor (Tyler Barnhardt), Carlton’s problematic friend. Some might argue that Will could be more successful with his basketball dreams or respected if he did not let his background define him, but we see that he may not have a choice in how he is seen, as others look at his background alone. 

While these themes were not as prevalent in “Fresh Prince” as they are here, the show is faithful in relaying them and adds more depth. Themes encapsulating identity are not one-sided and not just restrained to Will’s story. We also see these themes occur in Uncle Phil’s storyline when he is the only black candidate to run for District Attorney. As he tries to secure black voters and reconnect with fraternity brothers, it is hard for them to look past his affluence and success as they reduce him to just another politician rather than a positive force for the black community.

This is a dramatic take that amplifies these messages to form a modern drama. However, the show’s drama can feel contrived or forced at times. Carlton’s character development is sure to deter a few fans of the classic show. The first season of the original shows Will and Carlton developing a light rivalry with each other in the school setting, but they were still friends for the most part. If the famous “Carlton Dance” is any indication, Carlton often provided comedy relief with his jokes and musical tastes with only brief dramatic moments sprinkled throughout the series. 

We get a few brief instances of this familiar dynamic in episode three, but their relationship is mostly conflict-driven in the first episodes. We are introduced to a more aggressive and disillusioned Carlton who is less sympathetic as he frequently snorts Xanax and tries to make school a living hell for Will. Carlton’s motivation for treating Will harshly stems from jealousy over Will flirting with his ex-girlfriend Lisa (Simone Joy Jones). Carlton is successfully written to be unlikeable, but there is another layer to his characterization. As a privileged black man who has likely never faced discrimination or never had to work hard to get ahead, he does not seem too concerned about consequences. Carlton is not a one-dimensional character, though, as we can empathize with his further drug abuse as it disconnects him from inattentive parents. As conflict motivates drama, making Carlton into a full-on rival to Will is a questionable twist but fitting when we think of how both characters would fit in the Gen Z era. 

In remixing some of the characters and events of the original series, it is hard to tell how much longevity “Bel-Air” has. The benefit to any sitcom is that they can run for as long as seven or more years with little to no repetitiveness as we grow with likable characters. “Bel-Air” sets up a few things way too early, such as Will’s rivalry with Carlton and introducing Lisa, who did not join “Fresh Prince” until its fifth season. Dramas are hard to keep running without making story decisions that can come off as overdone or forced. For instance, assuming Will’s conflict with the drug dealer is resolved this season, it is hard to envision what would take place in season two after the one motivating external conflict is gone. And if Will’s rivalry with Carlton goes into next season, it could get old very quickly. “Bel-Air” is setting up interesting developments in its premiere episodes, but it remains to be seen where the show goes afterwards.

The cast does well to differentiate themselves from their predecessors while also paying homage to them, especially Holmes taking after the late James Avery. In his first role, newcomer Banks gives an outstanding performance as Will. Banks displays Smith’s swagger and confidence from the original show, but gives off more dramatic range than Smith had the chance to. It is easy to see Bank’s passion for the role as he delivers lines and makes jokes that we could easily envision Smith saying with the same comedic payoff. His dramatic approach is worth noting as we are able to root for Will early on in the series despite having only known him for three episodes. Banks makes Will his own character while respecting Smith’s take on the role, cementing himself as one of the show’s brighter spots.

“Bel-Air” is a modern update of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” that advances the original premise, but it seems to be laying its cards out too early. Taking a story that started as a comedy and shifting it into a drama is no easy task. “Bel-Air” could end up doing it successfully, but it may come at the cost of its longevity.