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Peacock's Bel-Air looks good, but it needs to get out of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's shadow first

  • "If the writing can lean into the characters and let them breathe, Bel-Air will work," says Brian Tallerico, who says the first two episodes are overly reliant on over-written messaging and nostalgia for the original series. "Bel-Air, the newest drama on the streaming service Peacock, has one of the most unusual origin stories in the history of television," says Tallerico. "Perhaps because of this odd history, it struggles to develop its own identity in the first two episodes, too content to mimic what people have liked before instead of creating something new. However, the third episode hints at what Bel-Air could, and likely will, end up being once it gets the nostalgia out of the way, and I wished I could see more episodes before coming to a conclusion on this unique project. For two hours, I was ready to write it off as a misfire, and there are still some writing issues that hamper all three chapters, but you start to see how Bel-Air could eventually ascend to a television throne of its own, not supplanting its inspiration but ruling a different empire altogether."


    • Bel-Air doesn’t feel distinct enough from TV’s many rich-people soaps to become a classic: "The dialogue can sound stiff, and constant references to both the original show and (Morgan) Cooper’s video get tiresome," says Judy Berman. "Yet it does have all the makings of a solid drama. True, he’s no Will Smith—there’s only one of those—but Jabari Banks makes a magnetic lead in his own right, wisely toning down the character’s exuberance for a genre without laugh tracks. And as the season progresses, story lines that touch on Black fraternities, the community obligations of wealthy Black families and intergenerational disagreements over calling out racism raise an intriguing question: Three decades after The Fresh Prince, what does Black excellence look like now?"
    • As teen-oriented soaps go, Bel-Air is too often competent and not much more: "Once you take away the nostalgic link to a beloved series from decades past, the end result is just a decent approximation of a CW drama like All-American, which has a very similar culture-clash premise," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "On the whole though, Bel-Air doesn’t live up to the thrill of (Morgan) Cooper’s original trailer. It’s one thing to ask whether it would be great if the Fresh Prince premise was used in service of a grittier, more dramatic take on the story; it’s another to make that twist work over the long haul. Not every piece of IP needs to be dusted off and given a new coat of paint, even if it seems that way with the current state of pop culture."
    • Too much of Bel-Air is just too much, representing that old rebooting instinct to make everything extra something: " Do we really need a cool Carlton, a sexy Uncle Phil, or a sad Will?" says Darren Franich. "Bel-Air wants to modernize its source material, but I worry the main appeal for the post-Super Bowl crowd will be posting side-eye social memes. It's the opposite of fresh: Nostalgia from hell."
    • Bel-Air thoughtfully and delicately fills in the gaps that its precursor, a ’90s network sitcom created by two white writers, left behind: "One of Bel-Air’s best innovations is meeting Will in his own environment before he’s whisked away to California," says Kellee Terrell. "Will still reps for his city and has that jokester charm, but this time around, he’s more focused: A straight-A student and basketball star being recruited by out-of-state D1 schools. But we learn that he doesn’t want to leave the city he calls home, the only city he knows. The series subtly ensures we understand his struggle as he straddles the old world he misses and the strange new one he’s being forced to navigate. We also get a clearer understanding of how much danger he’s in, even if it’s from afar. Most importantly, Banks isn’t imitating Smith’s Will. The 23-year-old has captured a similar spark, but confidently steps into his own lovable creation, commanding your attention the second he hits the screen."
    • Bel-Air would be better off if it cut down on The Fresh Prince Easter eggs: The Easter Eggs "never allow this show to disconnect from the past and find its own groove," says Tara Bennett. "Truly, there was no need for Bel-Air to tether itself so deeply to the Fresh Prince’s sandbox. If it instead was lightly inspired by its predecessor and bravely subverted expectations by changing things up immediately, the show would have only benefited from that distance. Instead, everything is constrained by the past, from Phil still being bald to Geoffrey’s (Jimmy Akingbola) slight upgrade to house manager with an exotic accent, and there’s nothing organic about this drama trying to force a sitcom square peg into its dramatic round hole. If Bel-Air has any hope of succeeding on its own merits, it needs to become its own thing sooner than later and tell the past to 'smell ya later.'"
    • Bel-Air is better than it has any right to be: "Already the recipient of a two-season order, no one can accuse the new series of moving too slowly; rather, the writers race through soap-opera-ish plot developments in the first three episodes, provoking skepticism about whether the producers have frontloaded the action a little too much," says Brian Lowry, adding: "Promoting the show during the Super Bowl might not be the ideal juxtaposition for a dark drama, but in terms of percentages, if the series can hook a tiny fraction of those viewers the bet will pay off for Peacock. While it's possible to second-guess that strategy, in terms of delivering a show improbably worthy of such pricey TV real estate, Bel-Air has held up its end of the bargain."
    • Whenever Jabari Banks is able to break free of Bel-Air's many plot machinations, he nails it: "In the first three episodes, the culture shock of going from Philly to Bel-Air overwhelms Will to the point where the show rarely lets his core personality shine through," says Caroline Framke. "But the moments in which he can let loose — like when he asks a catering chef if he can get a Philly cheesesteak, hangs out with hustler Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) or shrugs that he’s 'not a thug, (but) a smartass' — are the ones that keep Bel-Air from sinking too deep into its own gravitas. The rest of the show’s funhouse mirror versions of the Fresh Prince characters are disorienting for anyone who watched the comedy, but they nonetheless make perfect sense for the contemporary melodrama of shifting dynasties that Bel-Air is going for."
    • Bel-Air struggles to balance dramatizing, satirizing and being its own thing: "Without the Fresh Prince references, Bel-Air is almost entirely humorless, a chilly act of over-compensation," says Daniel Fienberg. "This is what happens when you attempt to call the bluff of a mock trailer that felt like it was intended to show (Morgan) Cooper’s clever vision as a director, but not really as a proof-of-concept anybody wanted to see as an ongoing series. Because the concept here, comfortably in TV’s history of outhouse-to-penthouse storytelling, ends up bearing less resemblance to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and more to The CW’s All American, which already felt like a more racially conscious version of The OC, which already felt like a grittier version of Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s probably the most 2022 thing imaginable to take one adored show and reboot it in a way that feels derivative of at least a half-dozen other shows."
    • Bel-Air sucks all the joy out of Fresh Prince: "Bel-Air is not funny. It doesn’t even try. Instead, it takes every aspect of the original show and sucks out the joy," says Anita Singh, adding: "Anyone looking for a hit of nostalgia, then, will be very disappointed indeed. But this show is presumably aimed at a young audience with little knowledge of the original. Does it succeed on its own terms? Not really. The programme-makers, including Smith as executive producer, aren’t sure where to pitch it. It doesn’t have Euphoria levels of hard-hitting content, but it doesn’t have any fun either."
    • Bel-Air brilliantly reimagines a comedy classic: "Not every situation comedy would work equally well reimagined this way — Gilligan’s Island, you could refit as a Pirandello play, maybe, but it’s hard to imagine milking an ongoing drama out of that unlikely crew," says Robert Lloyd. "(Then again, Lost.) But The Fresh Prince provides Bel-Air a solid foundation that manages at once to honor the original — and not just in the way that Will wears a ball cap sideways and his Academy jacket lining out — while taking it somewhere new; it’s more exploration than exploitation."
    • Bel-Air had to race to be completed after showrunners Rasheed Newson and T.J. Brady were tapped to replace the original showrunners over creative differences: “Ultimately, the studio and the network made the decision to ask us to give it a try,” Brady says. “And we had not a lot of time because it was either going to air on this Super Bowl Sunday” or they were likely going to stop production and “take the time to develop it,” he says. “So it all happened very fast.”
    • Morgan Cooper, whose viral video resulted in the Bel-Air reboot, wanted the series to subvert expectations: “I’m not typically a fan of reboots either, so I don’t take offense to people who might be a little bit hesitant about this show,” says the 30-year-old Bel-Air creator, a self-taught independent filmmaker. “But creatively, I approached Bel-Air like any other fully original idea I’ve had, and I would have never tried to make it if I didn’t have anything to say. This take came from a very pure and honest place. So it’s exciting to subvert people’s expectations. That’s all that any of us want from a story: to be surprised, in a positive way.”
    • The character of Will is a part that Jabari Banks has been unknowingly preparing for his entire life: Banks, who grew up with a Fresh Prince box set, says of weekly gatherings around his hometown of Philadelphia: “I remember hearing stories about how The Fresh Prince would air and everything would shut down. Everybody just watched the episode and the next day were talking about it.”
    • Banks finds parallels between his and Will Smith's lives: It's like art imitating life, says Banks. “My life parallels Will’s life in the show so specifically, it’s really crazy," he says. "To be in front of the camera, and to play on this level is so beautiful.”

    TOPICS: Bel-Air, Peacock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jabari Banks, Morgan Cooper, Rasheed Newson, TJ Brady, Will Smith