Evans Vestal Ward / Peacock
When I was younger, I sometimes wondered why we only saw two or three rooms in the house. The prince of Bel-Air with any regularity.
The Banks Family House sitcom set on the original fresh prince was like looking into a miniature dollhouse, and in some ways it helped temper the level of money parents Philip and Vivian Banks had amassed. The rooms we saw in their house were – and I say this as someone who grew up in suburban New Jersey – not wildly out of the norm of what I might see in a friend’s house in college. Was the layout and size of the Matthews family home boy meets the world maybe more common? Absoutely. I grew up in a Matthews home. But homes like the populated areas of Banks in my community, and while the idea of Bel Air never felt feasible, it didn’t seem that far off either.
Peacock’s reimagined (it’s hard to call it a reboot) version of the sitcom, Bel-Air, now an hour-long weekly drama, changed that. While The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air whispered wealth, money on Bel-Air absolutely screams. The Banks aren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, they’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians. The Hiltons. The Vanderpumps. The modern idea of what it means to be fabulously rich on television.
The structure of the Banks family has not changed much. Philip (Adrian Holmes) remains a Los Angeles campaign lawyer and Vivian a college professor. Older sister Hilary (Coco Jones) still isn’t particularly interested in college and lives in her parents’ swimming pool while trying to get her influencer career off the ground (who is, to be fair, the local weather forecaster for the big market or syndicated afternoon talk show host of 2022). Carlton (Olly Sholoton) is now a much less endearing version of the character Alfonso Ribera made famous, but in a way befitting a black kid who attended a school called Bel Air Academy since kindergarten. Meanwhile, younger sister Ashley (Akira Akbar) just wants to escape Geoffrey (Jimmy Akimbola, now a distractedly attractive “house manager” and security expert) so that she can attend her LAN and Fortnight evenings.
Just like in the original, Cousin Will Smith – a basketball prodigy and straight college student from West Philadelphia whose mother sends him to live with his cousins after trouble at home – is the replacement. of the public as a stranger to the world of Bel-Air. We’re meant to watch with him as he and his new friend Jazz (another entertaining actor, Jordan L. Jones, who also looks a bit like the late Tupac Shakur) approach the Banks’ house for the first time. Almost immediately, we see more of the estate than we ever had in the original series; a gleaming white foyer with sky-high ceilings, the same decor in the family kitchen the sitcom made us so familiar with, Will’s new bedroom, Carlton’s bedroom-sized closet, and a vast field which ultimately go further than what can be seen from the kitchen side door.
These Banks 2022 have money and that should be impressive, but at this point it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully in to Bel-Air. Peacock made the right decision, releasing the first three episodes together to be binged directly after the Superbowl, setting up captivating open storylines for every member of the family. I’ll be watching until it’s cancelled, or at least until Geoffrey gets his Pennyworthstyle fallout. It’s almost refreshing to say that I’m here for the story and do not the porn landscape.
When it comes to portraying the rich, Bel-Air don’t reinvent the wheel. The exterior and interior establishment shots we get of Banks’ house, driveway, cars, B-roll views of the greater LA area match what I’ve seen in countless episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or the sleek LA real estate rate like sell sunset and Million Dollar Listing LA. The Banks of Bel-Air are serving up wealthy reality TV, the kind of wealth that feels both overwhelming but also extremely tenuous.
Dorinda Medley was onto something when she said, “Money talks, wealth whispers,” on The Real Housewives of New York. No one on Bel-Air whispers. Their money exists, but it is not established. In some ways, that seems very (and sadly) fair to a black American family in this circumstance — a demographic that hasn’t had the opportunity to build generational wealth over time. But I also have the impression that the material comforts enjoyed by the Banks could disappear at any moment.
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That’s probably because reality TV defined how we see money represented on TV for the better part of a decade, especially in Southern California. We consumers know this as intrinsically as the reality TV stars themselves; hence why there is often at least one Real Housewife per series known to live far (perhaps criminally) out of her means to keep up appearances with others.
Although I don’t necessarily believe that financial ruin is where Bel-Air will (at least not in the first season!) choosing to lean into this kind of “new money” depiction of wealth gives pause in watching. It’s true that media-hungry consumers tend to be more suspicious and educated about wealth these days than in the past. I wonder, though, if the Banks living in a gorgeous Craftsman or Mid-Century Modern palace in the same zip code would alleviate some of that suspicion? Would this bring the Banks family back “down to earth” as they were on the original sitcom’s smaller, more intimate set?
The aggressively bright white, modern vicarage style they’ve chosen is no longer as impressive to our jaded eyes as it once might have been, and it also immediately begs a discerning viewer to ask questions. “Where did that money go comes fromis not out of place to wonder in a world where now-famous blacklisted lawyer Tom Girardi and Philip Banks do the same job. Certainly not when Phil shows how uncomfortable he is with talk about personal wealth in the third episode, titled “Yamacraw,” as voters considering his campaign for attorney general continue to ask him about that Bel Air-sized bank account.
As things stand, the Banks of Bel-Air feel as out of reach as the lives of the families I watch on reality TV every week. It’s out of reach, of course, but deeply familiar. Why? Maybe because reality TV has spent the past decade preparing me for precisely that.
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