In just over two years, writer Cooper Morgan has gone from directing and producing a fan-made Fresh Prince reboot to a fully-fledged and fleshed-out series on Peacock. Not a bad run for a striving artist.
The new show, Bel-Air, most certainly isn’t Will Smith from South Philadelphia, born and raised. Morgan is making this particular prince earn his crown. What made Peacock dive after the three-and-a-half-minute clip? And ultimately, how is Bel-Air a fresh take on what was one of NBC’s most successful 1990s shows? Let’s dig in.
Structured like an intriguing movie trailer, the homegrown short not only offered a fresh take on the Fresh Prince, but the clip went viral, earning over 7.5 million views to date. This got the attention of nearly every agency and studio in Hollywood — along with “Fresh Prince” star Will Smith who appeared in a video response, telling the filmmaker, “That’s an idea that is brilliant.”
NBC won the bidding war, so the show just so happened to drop on Peacock on February 13, the same day that Bel-Air appeared in Super Bowl ads on the same station. The original sitcom was a signature series for NBC. That legacy likely played into Peacock’s push to land the reimagining. The streamer has been actively rebooting classic NBC sitcoms (see: Saved By the Bell and Punky Brewster), but this Fresh Prince reimagining strays far from its comedic roots while retaining the same narrative plot.
In Bel-Air’s first episode, a wide-eyed Will (now played by Jabari Banks) arrives at his new abode, staring in wonder at the picturesque palm trees and luxury cars leading up to a pillared, neoclassical estate. Amidst a grand foyer’s artworks and double staircase, Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) asks if he’s going to be okay.
“It’s all good, Aunt Viv,” he responds with a smile and an eye roll. “I got in one little fight and my mom got scared.”
This is just one of several nods to its predecessor as well as an indication of just how far Bel-Air strays from the original. This “one little fight” turned out to be a lot more than Smith makes it. It was closer to a life or death showdown with a West Philly gang leader and an arrest that included a gun in Smith’s backpack.
As imagined by co-showrunners T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson and Cooper, the plot presents a more grounded reality. Take Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes). No longer the lovable yet gruff father figure, Phil is now “the law,” applying a tough-love approach with Smith, in no small way to save face. Phil is worried that pulling strings for Will could backfire and squelch his sparking district attorney campaign.
The worlds of Will’s rich new school and cousins add intrigue and issues of social class, a reflection of the greater stereotype of L.A.’s skin-deep reputation.
“This town will try to make you forget who you are and where you came from. Don’t let it do that,” Smith’s new friend Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) tells him.
Despite a strong premise, Bel-Air has room to improve. Most reviews echo the view that changing the sitcom’s tone has yet to allow Bel-Air to drive home its critical themes as well as the original The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air did 30 years ago. Critics note that despite its light tone, the iconic sitcom was still able to accomplish emotional depth and tackle social issues that struck a chord in a way that Bel-Air has yet to do.
Still, living up to one of the most-watched sitcoms of all time is a high bar to face. Shoot, even HBO Max saw enough potential in the original Fresh Prince to now stream reruns on the service.
Cooper exhibited a lot of imagination that was well-fleshed out by Brady and Newson. Now the show has to find its heart.