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In the second episode of Peacock’s Bel-Air, the show’s main character, a fish out of water in a ritzy Los Angeles zip code after growing up on hardscrabble streets back east, is having a crisis of identity.
His aunt and temporary guardian advises him, “Be the Will who charmed West Philly with his swag and his talents.”
Airdate: Sunday, February 13 (Peacock)
Cast: Jabari Banks, Adrian Holmes, Cassandra Freeman, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar, Jimmy Akingbola, Jordan L. Jones, Simone Joy Jones
Based on the video by Morgan Cooper, based on the series created by Andy and Susan Borowitz
It’s a clumsy line of dialogue, but it captures the ongoing struggle of Peacock’s occasionally entertaining, occasionally perplexing attempt to reimagine The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a gritty contemporary drama — based on Morgan Cooper’s viral 2019 mock trailer — with T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson as credited showrunners. When the thing or person you used to be was so successful and beloved, how do you adapt to being something new and yet still retain some vestigial charm, or swag?
If Bel-Air has no other legacy — after seeing three episodes, that seems like a possibility — as God is my witness, I’ll be using that line for all reboots that fail to live up to nostalgia.
“Be the Turner and the Hooch who charmed the Bay Area with their swag and their talents!”
“Be the Mighty Ducks who charmed Minnesota with their swag and their talents! Quack!”
Will (Jabari Banks) was born and raised in West Philadelphia, and it appears that spending most of his days on the playground has made him into a college basketball prospect. But then a couple of guys, who were up to no good, start making trouble in Will’s neighborhood (Said trouble includes a wager gone bad, a brandished gun and very temporary incarceration.) It was just one little fight, but Will’s mom (April Parker Jones) gets scared and makes it clear that he’s moving with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.
After a first-class flight and an expensive ride from the airport with a friendly guy named Jazz (Jordan L. Jones), Will arrives at the palatial abode of his attorney uncle Phillip Banks (Adrian Holmes) and his former artist aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman). It’s been a decade since he saw them, or his cousins — aspiring food influencer Hilary (Coco Jones), energetic tween Ashley (Akira Akbar) and Carlton (Olly Sholotan), whose code-switching abilities have made him a popular lacrosse standout at Bel-Air Academy, but not necessarily the sort of avatar of Black masculinity Will respects.
Over the introductory episodes, drama stems from Will’s problems adjusting to his sunny new home; pressure from Uncle Phil, who’s in the earliest stages of a campaign for district attorney; and a possible looming threat from back in West Philly that I never bought for a single second, because what low-level Philadelphia street dealer is going to be so offended by a minor playground tussle as to possibly fly across the country for revenge?
Much more convincingly, the tension in Bel-Air arises from the notion that on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will and everybody else tormented Carlton relentlessly and now he’s out for some well-deserved revenge.
Do you need to be a fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to enjoy Bel-Air? Well, certainly knowledge of the seminal NBC comedy is necessary to be amused by the new show, which spends at least its first hour dropping references and counting on people to giggle in recognition. It’s big and obvious things, like the presence of Jazz, or Hillary telling Will she’s going to find him an outfit suitable for a prince, or dedicated British butler Geoffrey, played by Jimmy Akingbola as an iPad-waving Jamaican “house manager.” But it’s much more frequently smaller nods, like the presence of Will’s West Philly buddy Tray, a nod to the part played by a young Don Cheadle in the sitcom. Especially after the pilot, which Cooper directs with moody flair, all tie-ins to the sitcom feel forced, like Will turning his prep school blazer inside out to cement his status as a fashion plate.
Of course, without the Fresh Prince references, Bel-Air is almost entirely humorless, a chilly act of over-compensation. This is what happens when you attempt to call the bluff of a mock trailer that felt like it was intended to show Cooper’s clever vision as a director, but not really as a proof-of-concept anybody wanted to see as an ongoing series. Because the concept here, comfortably in TV’s history of outhouse-to-penthouse storytelling, ends up bearing less resemblance to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and more to The CW’s All American, which already felt like a more racially conscious version of The OC, which already felt like a grittier version of Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s probably the most 2022 thing imaginable to take one adored show and reboot it in a way that feels derivative of at least a half-dozen other shows.
If Bel-Air begins to hint at its own voice in the third episode, in which Hunky Uncle Phil and Sexy Aunt Viv reconnect with their Black fraternity/sorority friends and ponder the gaps between their own current and past racial identities, its successes have a lot to do with casting. Holmes, in particular, is a fierce presence and offers regular reminders that although Uncle Phil was frequently mocked for his elite disconnectedness from his rural roots in the sitcom, James Avery played every moment like Shakespeare. Holmes and Freeman have power-couple chemistry and, unlike Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv in the sitcom, they convey a relationship with some real heat.
I’ll leave it for you to determine if “And in this incarnation, Uncle Viv and Uncle Phil totally have sex” sounds like a justification for this revised premise.” Either way, Holmes and Freeman are great, and if you pretend that Akingbola’s Geoffrey is less subservient Man Friday and more a part of an unspoken throuple, Bel-Air becomes generally more intriguing.
Sholotan is the series’ other standout, but perhaps only if you’ve grown up with inexplicable empathy for Carlton and wondered what Alfonso Ribeiro could have done if that much-maligned (inside the show) character had been allowed to have inner demons. In this version, Will arrives as a fish-out-of-water only after Carlton experienced his own outsider journey, and Carlton’s denial of his racial identity is played here as self-hatred. The easy translation would have been to make Carlton into nerdy comedic relief — like Seth Cohen, if we want to use The OC comparisons — but as Sholotan plays it, being Carlton is tearing Carlton apart; it’s one of the few changes from the original that pays immediate dividends.
With a less fully defined revamped character, Banks has a much harder job. He’s playing a part that was built around Will Smith’s particular diverse skillset, including his gifts with loose-limbed physical comedy and his charismatic ability to make any selection of fashion and slang feel immediately cool. There are moments Banks feels like he was cast completely for his physical and vocal similarities to Smith, an executive producer on the new series, without any consideration of how poorly those attributes play in this brooding, ostensibly grounded context. Other than some likable flirtation with Simone Joy Jones’ Lisa, a scholarship student and swimmer whose past relationship with Carlton adds only more tension, Will doesn’t begin showing a distinctive personality — much less “the Will who charmed West Philly with his swag and his talents” — until the third episode.
I wish he and Bel-Air found that distinctive personality sooner, because it points to the real potential of a show that for too long plays like an extended and derivative gag.
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