The Fresh Prince, reinvented

Peacock presents Bel-Air

4 minute read
Jabari Banks in Bel-Air. He wears a sideways baseball cap and a maroon school uniform blazer. He smiles joyfully.
Preserving the original Will: Jabari Banks in ‘Bel-Air.’ (Image courtesy of Peacock.)

When news broke that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was getting a reboot on the NBC streaming platform Peacock, many fans were upset. They were worried that the original series was going to be replaced—an unfortunately common happening in the age of the remake. As of this week, the eighth of 10 episodes of the first season of Bel-Air will be streaming, and thus far, it doesn’t risk eclipsing the original.

Executive produced by Will Smith himself, the new one-hour drama has been artfully adapted from the 30-minute sitcom to stand on its own. Just like in The Fresh Prince, Bel-Air follows Will Smith (recent University of the Arts graduate Jabari Banks) as he heads from West Philadelphia to California to move in with his Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv, and three cousins: Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley. However, the Banks and their world are not like we remember them.

The new Bel-Air

In Bel-Air, Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is still the preppy type, but this time he is much less comfortable with who he is. Instead of doing his infamous happy dance, he now has debilitating anxiety and uses cocaine and other drugs to cope.

Hilary (Coco Jones) now has a passion for cooking and is much more career-oriented than the character played by Karyn Parsons in the sitcom. But, as in the original, she’s still highly focused on her looks and image, especially since she is trying to become an influencer. Hilary is always looking out for her little sister, Ashley (Akira Akbar), who grapples with her emerging identity and sexuality.

Forever known as Uncle Phil, Phillip Banks (Adrian Holmes) is still a wealthy, high-powered lawyer in this parallel world. However, he seems much more affected by his money and his power this time around. There appears to be some indication of trouble in paradise for him and Viv (Cassandra Freeman) in this series as well.

The biggest change in character seems to be Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), the Banks’ butler. The prank-pulling free spirit of the sitcom is now a far more serious man who has been roped into the Banks’ constant family drama—which may include murder.

It’s no secret that the sets of large-budget dramas are often more elaborate than network sitcoms, but the Banks’ subtle yet classy 90s Bel-Air home has become a brassy, Gatsby-like mansion—an estate so colossal that it seems mismatched even to Uncle Phil’s success.

Aside from the antics of Will and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro in the 90s), and the obvious perks that come with money (such as attending prep school), in the original show, the Banks family members were seemingly down-to-earth (with the exception of Hilary, of course) and stayed out of real trouble. In Bel-Air, this is far from the case. From the moment we enter this complicated world, we are clued into the chaos and lies that loom within the Banks’ mansion and throughout Bel-Air.

A faithful reinvention

Despite many differences between Bel-Air and The Fresh Prince, some things have remained the same. It is clear that one thing the show intended to do was preserve the character of Will. Since he’s one of the most iconic TV characters of all time, this makes complete sense. Although so much of the world around him is different, Will's unique style (consumed with bright colors and sideways hats) and his lust for life remain intact. He is still very much a ladies’ man too, which Carlton does not like. This is probably because Will is choosing to go after Carlton’s ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Simone Joy Jones)—another character you might recognize from the original version.

Additionally, Bel-Air tackles various social and political issues. The first is the cycle of violence in low-income neighborhoods, which rears its head right away during the show’s inciting incident on a West Philly basketball court. Uncle Phil is running for district attorney with a platform that includes defunding the police. While this is a controversial topic, we see why Phillip feels it’s the right thing to do, even if it means upsetting his good friend, chief of police Fred Wilkes (Joe Holt).

During its six-season run, violence and police brutality were topics that The Fresh Prince touched on as well. Being one of the most renowned Black-led sitcoms ever on television, this was a big deal. In season one, there is a famous episode in which Will and Carlton are wrongfully arrested for stealing a Mercedes after being profiled. And in the fifth season, there is an even more famous episode where the duo gets robbed at gunpoint and Will gets shot.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can never be replaced, but there is something to be said for reinventing some of the most beloved characters in TV history. Just like the original series, Bel-Air is both entertaining and culturally relevant.

What, When, Where

The first seven episodes of Bel-Air are now streaming on Peacock. New episodes are released on Thursdays.

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