REVIEW: ‘Bel-Air’ Inherits A Throne It Isn’t Ready For

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bel Air - But Why Tho

Bel-Air is a Peacock Original Series, created by Morgan Cooper, Malcolm Spellman, TJ Brady & Rasheed Newson. Will Smith (Jabari Banks) has his life all figured out: he’s a born and bred Philadelphia native and his skills on the basketball court all but guarantee a full ride to any college he wants. However, it all goes out the window when a game of streetball goes wrong, leading to Will pulling a gun on a gang member — which lands him in jail. After Will is bailed out, his mother Viola (April Parker Jones) sends him to live in Los Angeles with his uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman). Will has to learn to rub shoulders with the rich and affluent inhabitants of Bel-Air, leading to friction with his cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan).

The genesis of Bel-Air is a strange one. Cooper originally crafted a short film that took a dramatic approach to the events detailed in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s theme song. The film eventually went viral, even catching the eye of Will Smith himself-who worked with Cooper to shape it into a full-fledged series. Smith even serves as a producer on the series through his Westbrook Studios barrier. Peacock even entered a bidding war to land the series, beating out Netflix and HBO Max-ironically, the latter platform has the full run of the original Fresh Prince. And it’s not surprising that Peacock raced to get its hands on Bel-Air. Reboots and revivals are all the rage, and often draw subscribers to streamers (case in point, iCarly on Paramount+ and How I Met Your Father on Hulu.)

The series actually has a decent pace, setting up Will’s life in Philly to showcase how comfortable he is there. This serves as a nice contrast to when he first arrives at Phil and Vivian’s luxurious Bel-Air mansion. Will still wears his Philly ways on his sleeve. At a backyard party, he asks the chef to make a Philly-style cheesesteak, he frequently uses the Philly slang “jawn,” and on his first day of school at Bel-Air Academy, he wears a backward baseball cap and fresh Jordans. It helps that Banks is a Philadelphia native himself — and much like the actor whose role he inherited, he possesses a great deal of charisma. If nothing else, I hope this series puts Banks on Hollywood’s radar.

Other characters also get a timely update, and unlike other reboots – I’m looking at you, Cowboy Bebop – these updates make sense. Will’s cousin Hilary (Coco Jones) is an aspiring influencer and gourmet chef, while future friend Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) is a rideshare driver (and even looks like the spitting image of DJ Jazzy Jeff). But the biggest and best change is reserved for Geoffrey Thompson (Jimmy Akingbola). Once a prim and proper British butler, Geoffery is now the Banks’ house manager and is a British-Jamaican man with a quiet, yet steely exterior. He also has a genuine friendship with Uncle Phil-some of the best scenes involve the two playing pool and listening to A Tribe Called Quest.

It’s a shame the same care wasn’t given to Carlton. While Sholotan does a great job of making Carlton feel like the stuck-up rich kid he was in the original Fresh Prince, Carlton comes off as trying way too hard to fit in with his white peers. A key example comes in the first episode, where Will stumbles upon Carlton and his lacrosse teammates loudly singing along to a rap song that uses the “N” word frequently. When Will rightfully calls them out on it, Carlton tries to excuse it by shifting the blame on the rappers who made the song.

The original series often had Will and Carlton at odds, but deep down they loved each other and would stick up for each other if given the chance. The pilot of Bel-Air literally ends with them slugging it out, and the following episodes feel more like Hamlet than Fresh Prince. This becomes especially egregious as it seems like the other characters have storylines that actually have them dealing with family drama and being Black.

Hilary lands an interview with an haute cuisine magazine but is told to tone down her recipes as they might not appeal to the “target audience.” In other words, white people. Phil, running a campaign for the district attorney’s office, is questioned by his fellow fraternity brothers on whether his wealth has made him lose sight of his principles. These stories actually felt like they were given actual thought. Why didn’t Carlton’s get the same treatment?

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a marked shift in quality between the pilot episode and the two episodes that follow it. Cooper directs the pilot with grace and purpose, even bookending it with a pair of scenes where Will is floating in a pool, grasping for a golden crown. In contrast, the other episodes are harshly lit and utilize too much shaky cam—and the third episode introduces a plot point so ludicrous that Saturday Night Live actually made a Fresh Prince skit that tackled it.

Bel-Air substitutes craft and cleverness for melodrama and melancholy, resulting in a shadow of what made its source material an engaging watch. Though it’s been greenlit for two seasons, this series has a long way to go before it earns its crown.

The first three episodes of Bel-Air are currently available to stream on Peacock, with new episodes premiering every Thursday.


Bel Air
  • 5/10
    Rating - 5/10
5/10

TL;DR

Bel-Air substitutes craft and cleverness for melodrama and melancholy, resulting in a shadow of what made its source material an engaging watch. Though it’s been greenlit for two seasons, this series has a long way to go before it earns its crown.