No matter what it turned out to actually be, “Bel-Air” was always going to raise some eyebrows by its premise alone. As every network and streaming service scrambles to make the best (or at least most) use of their in-house IP, a grim reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” for Peacock sounds like something ripped straight from a “30 Rock” joke about NBC trying to make it 1990 again through science or magic. Transforming the neon flair of the popular Will Smith sitcom into a flashy drama could be the inevitable nadir of the Hollywood reboot machine going through its recyclables. But in 2022, there are far worse and stranger inspirations for shows than older ones that succeeded — and at least in its first three episodes, “Bel-Air” proves itself far from the worst offender.
Irrespective of genre, the basic concept of “Fresh Prince” — scrappy kid from the supposed “wrong side of the tracks” gets thrown into the realm of the wealthy, hijinks ensue — is an age-old narrative formula that’s been used over and over again for a simple reason: it works. Where (“Bel-Air” executive producer) Will Smith once mugged for the “Fresh Prince” studio audience, newcomer Jabari Banks holds his own in “Bel-Air” as the anchor of a coming-of-age story that should feel familiar even if you’ve never seen a single episode of the comedy that inspired it. Isolating and dramatizing the tropes that “Fresh Prince” leaned on is what made Morgan Cooper’s hypothetical, viral 2019 “Bel-Air” trailer so sharp in the first place, and it’s what makes his full-blown television series version work whether or not you’ve seen ”Fresh Prince.” In fact, it might be even better if you haven’t.
As imagined by co-showrunners T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson (“The Chi”) and Cooper, who co-wrote and directed the first episode, the lyrics of famous “Fresh Prince” credits song that Smith once rapped with such goofy charm become something much darker. In the more grounded reality of “Bel-Air,” the “one little fight” that sends 16 year-old Will (newcomer Jabari Banks) across the country is a legitimate life or death showdown with a West Philly gang leader that goes horribly wrong. After Will gets arrested and his life seems in danger, his mother (April Parker Jones) sends him to Bel-Air, where his Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) and Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) are waiting to take him in.
That framework, paired with Phil worrying that his “pulling strings” to get Will out of trouble will backfire on his nascent district attorney campaign, immediately ups the stakes to create the necessary tension for the series’ deliberate change in tone from the original. Throw in the worlds of Will’s rich new school and cousins, add a splash of corporate intrigue, and “Bel-Air” becomes a familiar mix of shows like “The O.C.,” “Empire,” and even “Gossip Girl.” (To wit: “Bel-Air” features “Empire” writer Malcolm Spellman on its EP roster and shares at least two writers, JaNeika and JaSheika James, with HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl.”) The dialogue can be snappy, even as it’s committed to saying the quiet part loud (i.e. rejecting subtext for much blunter text). And as established by Cooper’s directing in the pilot, the camera’s most comfortable when in motion, whether that be on the basketball court, through the Bel-Air Academy halls, or the glitzy functions reminding Will that he’s not exactly in West Philly anymore.
As Will, Banks has the unenviable task of establishing Will’s backstory and charisma in a way that rivals Smith’s singular entrance on “Fresh Prince” — and whenever he’s able to break free of “Bel-Air”’s many plot machinations, he nails it. In the first three episodes (which drop February 13 on Peacock), the culture shock of going from Philly to Bel-Air overwhelms Will to the point where the show rarely lets his core personality shine through. But the moments in which he can let loose — like when he asks a catering chef if he can get a Philly cheesesteak, hangs out with hustler Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) or shrugs that he’s “not a thug, [but] a smartass” — are the ones that keep “Bel-Air” from sinking too deep into its own gravitas.
The rest of the show’s funhouse mirror versions of the “Fresh Prince” characters are disorienting for anyone who watched the comedy, but they nonetheless make perfect sense for the contemporary melodrama of shifting dynasties that “Bel-Air” is going for. Holmes’ Phillip is more suave than James Avery was stern, boasting a killer smile and keen eye for potential enemies. Freeman’s Viv, straightforward and ambitious, errs closer to Janet Hubert’s original than not, but the role of Geoffrey the uptight butler becomes that of a “house manager” slash muscle man (Jimmy Akingbola). As for the kids, teen princess Hilary (Coco Jones) is now an aspiring cooking influencer who shoots Instagram Lives from the pool house, while baby of the family Ashley (Akira Akbar) is still basically just happy to be here.
The character that represents the most obvious deviation from his inspiration is Carlton (Olly Sholotan), Will’s cousin and foil. Whereas Alfonso Ribeiro’s sitcom version was a hopelessly out-of-touch dweeb, “Bel-Air” makes him a star lacrosse player and one of the most popular kids in school. The choice should be jarring — and yet, certain traits of the original Carlton break through this seemingly completely disparate character to make him even more intriguing. In the world of “Bel-Air,” Sholotan’s Carlton is still as jealous, condescending, and prone to bragging about his privilege as he was in “Fresh Prince.” The difference is that he’s now looking down at Will from the top of the mountain he’s climbed by assimilating into the mostly white world around him, and can’t stand to watch Will work his way up by refusing to do the same.
Carlton can’t keep clutching onto his meager power with such a tight grip forever, nor can he and Will keep locking horns without the dynamic getting old. But with a two-season order, Cooper and company should be able to figure out how to not just flip the “Fresh Prince” script, but turn “Bel-Air” upside-down into something more unique unto itself, too. If the show’s trying to be different from what we’ve seen before, it might as well keep pushing.
The first three episodes of “Bel-Air” premiere (Super Bowl) Sunday, February 13 on Peacock.