‘Bel-Air’: ‘Fresh Prince’ as a drama isn’t a bad idea, but does it have to be so dour?
Peacock’s reimagining of the ’90s sitcom goes over the top with drama, conflict and heavy-handed symbolism.
Heavy-handed is the show that inherited the crown.
With so many popular shows from the late 20th century getting reboots and sequels, it just was a matter of time before someone gave a platform to a new “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — but despite the clever premise of switching genres from comedy to drama, the Peacock series “Bel-Air” is off to an uneven start. In the first few episodes, we should be getting to know these new incarnations of familiar characters, learning about who they are and what makes them tick, but there’s so much instant melodrama and so many major developments in each episode, it’s as if they’re trying to top “Cobra Kai” and “Euphoria” and “All American” for the sheer number of high school-related crises per chapter.
A series premiering with three episodes Sunday on Peacock and a new episode released each future Sunday.
The story of how a beloved 1990s Will Smith sitcom was turned into a 2020s hourlong drama series on Peacock is quite remarkable. In 2019, Morgan Cooper uploaded a short film called “Bel-Air,” which was a mock trailer for a serious re-imagining of “The Fresh Prince.” The video went viral and attracted the attention of Will Smith, who eventually ordered a two-season run from Cooper, who serves as executive producer, director and co-writer on the series. That’s YouTube at its best right there.
Alas, based on the first three episodes, the series seems in danger of being better remembered for HOW it became a show than the quality of the product itself. Despite the glossy production values and the game efforts of an attractive and gifted cast, “Bel-Air” goes over the top far too often, relying on heavy-handed symbolism, passionate and actor-friendly monologues delivered at the merest hint of a conflict — and fights, whether it’s verbal altercations, physical clashes or the threat of gun violence. There’s so much going in Bel-Air, we start wondering if Will would be better off returning to West Philly, where at least he knows who his friends are and who is gunning for him.
So, yes, “Bel-Air” follows the basic “Fresh Prince” blueprint, just in a very different tone. Newcomer Jabari Banks is an instantly likable and natural presence as 16-year-old Will Smith, a D-1 basketball prospect in West Philly whose life is turned upside down when he gets into a heated dispute with a local gang leader — a dispute that spirals out of control and leads to Will getting arrested and fearing for his life. That’s it, as far as Will’s mother (April Parker Jones) is concerned. She’s sending Will to Bel-Air to live with his aunt and uncle and cousins, even though he hasn’t seen the Bankses for the better part of a decade.
On the sitcom, the Banks family had money, but it was the kind of money illustrated by exterior shots of a house in Brentwood and then a nicely appointed set. On “Bel-Air,” Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) and Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) are RICH-RICH. They live in an enormous mansion with expansive grounds — the kind of place that looks like a luxury hotel, only with even bigger bedrooms, nicer bathrooms and probably even better linens.
Aunt Viv remains a sympathetic and caring character trying to keep the family close, while this version of Uncle Phil is a suave, ambitious, warm but commanding presence who is running for district attorney, often trots out the family as photo-op props and is worried Will’s presence will scandalize his campaign, especially if the press learns the real reason he’s out here. (I’m not sure how taking in a nephew who’s been in some trouble to help him out would be a campaign negative, but there you have it.)
With the writers sprinkling in the occasional in-joke reminding us of the source material, “Bel-Air” also gives us a Carlton, who is very the antithesis of comic relief. Will’s cousin is an ambitious, duplicitous, tightly wound lacrosse star who basically runs the school by assimilating into his wealthy white surroundings. Carlton is also addicted to designer drugs and prone to temper tantrums, and he takes an instant dislike to Will.
By the third episode, these two have clashed big-time on numerous occasions, to the point where the law has to get involved. And with the clearly talented Olly Sholotan sometimes overplaying Carlton as a borderline sociopath as the clashes between Will and Carlton become ever more serious, “Bel-Air” seems to be cramming a season’s worth of drama into the first three episodes.
(To be sure, the original “Fresh Prince” had its occasional serious and dramatically impactful moments through the years — one of the reasons it endures to this day — but “Bel-Air” piles on the overwrought developments before we’re truly settled in with these characters.)
We’re also re-introduced to a number of familiar characters in different incarnations. Carlton’s older sister Hilary (Coco Jones) is an influencer/aspiring chef with a big social media following but no real job while tween sister Ashley (Akira Akbar) is a smart, well-adjusted, happy kid. (Hang onto that for as long as you can, Ashley.) Geoffrey the butler is now Geoffrey the house manager, and as played by Jimmy Akingbola, this Geoffrey is like a consigliere, i.e., Tom Hagen to Phil’s Don Corleone.
Not that Uncle Phil is corrupt. At least as far as we know. That would be too much of a dramatic leap, even for the somber “Bel-Air.”