This is a spoiler-free review of Bel-Air’s first three episodes.
In an era of countless reboots and revivals that we didn’t ask for nor wish to see, Bel-Air truly stands out among the crowd. The dramatic reimagining of the iconic and quintessentially ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is, in fact, something that came to fruition from fandom desire. Nearly three years after Morgan Cooper’s dark and imaginative viral trailer that caught THE Will Smith’s attention and led to a two season deal with Peacock, Bel-Air is ready to take us back through Will’s journey of acceptance, maturation, and establishing new bonds on February 13. But, make no mistake. Bel-Air is not simply rehashing the previous storyline with some dramatic infusion. Instead, it uses the general framework of its predecessor to set the stage but begins to craft its own distinctive soul.
As mentioned above, my Bel-Air review is only of the first three episodes of a 10 episode season. Therefore, many narrative threads and relationships are just beginning to form and it remains to be seen if they will shift (for better or worse) in the future. As expected with a drama versus a sitcom (specifically from the ’90s) there will be more continuity and clearer seasonal arcs. What must be established immediately, however, is Bel-Air’s most critical element: the protagonist. He’s our gateway into this series, the medium through which we have this vicarious experience of being abruptly ripped from the known and thrown into a socially jarring space. If we can’t vibe with him, empathize with him, and root for his impending growth, then it ain’t gonna work.
So, does this Will pass the test? Absolutely. University of the Arts graduate and West Philly native Jabari Banks is utterly enigmatic in Bel-Air. He infuses Will Smith with wit, charm, vulnerability, youthful stubbornness, and a strong dash of confidence. The two latter traits work to both the benefit and detriment of the character’s decisions, philosophies, and life commentary. When he’s right, he’s quite right.
But when he’s wrong? Oh, do the repercussions of his actions weigh heavy in various ways. The stakes become elevated and paint a specific portrait of what Black American youth face. We also get to see Will’s stronger threads to his life-shifting choice in West Philly. It’s these types of changes that add a new depth to the realities a kid like Will could face. And it speaks to the blessing of having someone who gives what the Will Smiths of the world often don’t get: grace, compassion, and a second chance.
Will’s bolder and (at times) more confrontational stance lays the foundation for his relationships with each of the Banks family members. There’s much commentary on Will and Carlton’s radically different dynamic in Bel-Air that cannot be said without veering into spoiler review territory; however, viewers will love how Banks and Olly Sholotan play off each with loads of chemistry and tension. Their sparring is both shocking and wildly entertaining with Sholotan giving Carlton an enthralling myriad of layers. Adrian Holmes also brings a realistic and likeable energy to this Uncle Phil, hinting at yet another special relationship in the making.
And Cassandra Freeman? Well, she’s definitely what we love about the OG Aunt Viv with a backstory that will surely become more prevalent in future episodes. Overall, the Banks family, like Will, are well cast (lots of love for Akira Akbar, Jimmy Akingbola, and Coco Jones as Ashley, Geoffrey, and Hillary, respectively). And, thankfully, none of them are carbon copies of the original characters, which would defeat the purpose of this new take.
Some are dramatically warmer, some are harsher, and (in the case of two beloved characters) others are barely existent in the first three episodes. The noticeable lack of screen time may rub established fans the wrong way because the inclination to compare the two series is strong. I get it. Hopefully, they will get more individual screen time as well as shared time with Will and others as Bel-Air progresses. A couple of peripheral characters come into focus quickly in surprising new ways. They help bolster Will’s sense of being out of his element yet give him something “familiar” to grasp onto.
Bel-Air does have occasional dialogue that doesn’t land smoothly and minor situations with very neat solutions. Neither one of these are an overwhelming issue at this point because this show as a whole is off to a solid start. Performances aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the show’s soundtrack. Listen. You can tell they got that Will Smith (the famous actor) and Westbrook money behind them. The hits are present and placed with strategic perfection. There’s a mixture of honoring hip-hop legends of the past and present. It gives a nod to The Fresh Prince era while also firmly cementing this story through a Gen Z kid’s eyes.
Will some people who review and/or casually tune in not like Bel-Air? Sure. There’s no show for everyone and sometimes people will not like a thing simply because it is not like the previous thing. (See Cowboy Bebop.) Or it just may not be their thing. And that’s okay. But, if viewers are willing to engage Bel-Air as a series that uses the basics of a familiar story to dive in with more grit, difficult decisions, tension, and laughs along the way, they might open themselves up to enjoy the ride. As a Fresh Prince fanatic, I did and I am beyond ready to see where this Will’s story goes.