“Nostalgia is one hell of a drug,” says Carlton Banks (Olly Sholotan). And Carlton should know that, because all that Xanax he’s been sniffing is literally starting to pour out of his nostril! welcome to Bel-Aira fresh prince update that replaces the laugh track with dramatic intensity. The reboot (which debuts after the Super Bowl on Peacock) proves too sensitive but also far too ridiculous, caught between dueling instincts for soapy animosity and bland aspiration.
The concept remains unchanged from the ’90s sitcom. A child from West Philly moves across the country and into several economic stratospheres to live with his aunt and uncle, their children, and their butler. The child’s name is Will Smith (Jabari Banks) – canonical, of course, and never strange for a regular person to be called Will Smith in 2022 without other people constantly asking follow-up questions. the Bel-Air premiere remixes the original cheeky rap intro into a lengthy prologue about gang violence and police brutality. This Will is a top basketball prospect who finds himself with a target on his back after a pick-up game goes awry.
Will’s (April Parker Jones) mother has a simple solution. She sends him to live with his sister Vivian Banks (Cassandra Freeman) in a gigantic mansion in Bel-Air. And I mean gigantic. In fresh princeWill’s aunt and uncle were wealthy, but sitcom rich, like home-is-mostly-a-sofa-to-sit-rich. In this new world of streaming, Vivian and Philip (Adrian Holmes) live in a palace with a pool the size of San Simeon, and their ambitions know no bounds. He is a candidate for the post of prosecutor. Her daughter Hilary (Coco Jones) is an influencer with 75,000 followers and counting. At school, the middle child Carlton is a popular athlete. Youngest child Ashley (Akira Akbar) seems sweet and will likely take over as head of the Federal Reserve in Season 2. “I mean, look at us!” Carlton tells his siblings. “Pure, unadulterated black excellence!”
peacock Jabari Banks as Will and Jordan L. Jones as Jazz in ‘Bel-Air’
I think that line is sort of meant to be ironic, the same way Carlton is sort of Bel-Airis the first major villain. Their lives look glamorous – closets full of fashion, an arcade room, friends in high places – and hide notable secrets. Hilary left college last year and has lived at home ever since. Carlton takes a rich kid’s drug, and Will’s arrival blows up his cousin for a variety of reasons. Will begins a relationship with his father, upsets the social order at school, and begins caring for Carlton’s ex-girlfriend. There remains the fascinating danger that Will is just more authentic that Carlton, the proverbial Black Guy of the lacrosse team, and their outright hostility towards each other forms the backbone of the three Bel-Air episodes that I have seen.
Carlton as Draco in Will’s Harry? It’s definitely an angle. A problem with Bel-Air is that there’s a criminal in Philadelphia who wants to murder Will – like, murder him until he’s dead – which removes all the danger of internal family feuds. (It’s ok if your cousin is a moron when someone tries to kill you.) The addition of reality spoils this premise in many ways; it makes no sense to seek top secret witness protection in a house with a political candidate and Instagram influencer. Peacock officially described Bel-Air as a “dramatic take”, but the show shakes up the basic rules of drama. Shocking cliffhangers are quickly resolved. Philip continues to solve major legal problems with powers of attorney.
As Will, newcomer Banks can be charming, even if the series continues to awkwardly put an emotional weight on his shoulders. He suffers from personal trauma, and he’s an amazing basketball player, and he has to be the voice of social conscience when Carlton sees nothing wrong with his white teammates saying the n-word, and he helps Philip to get back in touch with his roots just in time to impress the local eminence. That’s a lot – and you have to remember that in fresh prince, there was no real distance between the fictional Will and the real Smith. You always felt the rapper-turned-actor standing a stone’s throw away from the sitcom world with a cocky grin. There was a generosity in his confident sarcasm, a playful awareness that he could hit all those targets blindfolded. (In other words: I make it good.)
Even in the dramatic context, Bel-Air could use more of that sardonic wit. There are wandering moments of observational hilarity. In his first basketball game for Bel-Air, Will takes on a player from the opposing team. “Are you really from Malibu?” he asks. “Are you really from Bel-Air?” the guy responds, with a wink – another non-white athletic star from a wealthy white enclave. Conversely, too many Bel-Air is just too much, representing that old reboot instinct to make everything something more. Do we really need a cool Carlton, a sexy Uncle Phil or a sad Will? Bel-Air wants to modernize its source material, but I’m afraid the main draw for the post-Super Bowl crowd is posting secondary social memes. It’s the opposite of fresh: nostalgia for hell. VS