"The unspoken rules of gathering the cast of a beloved TV show for a reunion special are familiar," says Aisha Harris. "Gin up the nostalgia and warm, fuzzy feels. Montages and clip reels highlight the memorable onscreen moments from years past, as everyone jovially reminisces about the time spent playing and creating together on set. If a key member is absent because of behind-the-scenes drama or personal setbacks, try to avoid acknowledging they were ever a part of the show in the first place, and/or gloss over any tensions that might spoil the lovefest. Put on a happy face." HBO Max's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion followed this rule faithfully for nearly 45 minutes. But then the reunion special cut to Will Smith and Hubert addressing the elephant in the room: her unceremonious exit in 1993 after three seasons. Harris adds: "What's most striking about their exchange is how familiar Hubert's story is for women in the workplace. During Season 3 when she became pregnant, she says, she was facing challenges in her personal life (her then-husband was abusive and unemployed), which indirectly bled into how she approached her work on set. Hubert says this led to the much more powerful Smith painting her on set and in the media as someone who was 'difficult' to work with, and that she was told he was responsible for her being forced out. When she was offered a new, restrictive contract –she would only work two and a half months out of the year, her salary would be cut, and she would be prohibited from accepting other jobs outside of Fresh Prince – she refused to accept the offer."
The Fresh Prince special is a blueprint for streaming services selling nostalgia: "This reunion was assembled to tell the story behind the story of Fresh Prince and its uniquely memorable characters," says Adam Rosenberg. But it's the level of care that went into bringing all the important pieces together — the cast, the set, the right clips, the key topics — that makes it work. It's so good, in fact, that other streaming services really ought to sit up and take notice. Based on Fresh Prince, HBO Max has this figured out. The long-discussed Friends reunion is still in the works and apparently shooting in March. Any service with that kind of historic programming in its archives should be looking to see which crews would be willing to get back together. NBC even tried it over the summer, timing a 30 Rock reunion to the launch of its Peacock streaming service. But that one seemed to fizzle out on arrival. Maybe the show is still too recent. Maybe the controversial moments it's been dinged for in hindsight turned people off. Or maybe, as Variety noted, 'the special was more of an opportunity for NBCUniversal to promote NBCUniversal.' Fresh Prince works as well as it does because it's just so pure. You can't simply replicate that in some other reunion, but you can reach for a similar result."
The special was moving and cathartic, but it would've benefitted delving into Fresh Prince's mostly white writers' room and its impact on 1990s Black sitcoms: "The cast was always aware that most of the show’s writers were white — and it was thus incumbent upon them to contribute to the scripts," says Inkoo Kang. "...It’s genuinely heartwarming to see that the cast felt welcome to provide input, especially when it came to matters of race. But even the most cursory scan of the show’s Wikipedia page reveals the credits for Black writers like John Ridley, Winifred Hervey, Devon Shepard, Maiya Williams and Samm-Art Williams. Which isn’t to say that the Borowitzes couldn't have done more to bring in more Black voices and POVs behind the scenes — the reunion special’s table-read footage shows the Black cast often surrounded by white writers, producers and crew members. But it would've been fascinating to get a more nuanced perspective on the dynamics in the writers room and how they interplayed with the actors' requests. But that would've required bringing in viewpoints beyond the cast's. (Tatyana) Ali argues lyrically for the important representation that the show offered, but it also might’ve been more interesting to get a sense of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s role within the flourishing of Black sitcoms during the ‘90s, when the series overlapped with The Cosby Show, A Different World, Living Single, Martin, Family Matters, Sister, Sister and more. It’s particularly here that a scholar or a network exec’s perspective would’ve expanded the special’s examination of the show’s legacy."