Only the first 3 episodes were made available for review.
The story of how Bel-Air got off the ground is a thoroughly modern one.
Morgan Cooper, an independent filmmaker, uploaded a trailer to YouTube in which he reimagined The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a drama. It created quite the splash, in turn landing on Will Smith's radar, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To compare the 10-episode revival to the original source material is like comparing pizza with ice cream. The two shows are entirely different beasts, both in tone and structure, and while the intention remains the same – to entertain – how they go about that varies vastly. But where Fresh Prince succeeded tenfold, Bel-Air is mostly so-so.
The concept of Bel-Air mirrors that of the sitcom – we were never promised a complete inversion of its predecessor, but rather a fresh take – with Will carted off to the other side of the country following an altercation on a basketball court.
After some initial wobbles and a failed attempt to escape back to West Philadelphia, he starts to find his feet as those around him begin to fall under his spell. But the dispute that upended his life at home continues to weigh heavily on him, with the promise of more trouble to come, which allows Bel-Air to lean into the high-stakes drama that Fresh Prince had zero interest in.
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Will's charm remains just as integral to Bel-Air as it was to the sitcom and Jabari Banks puts in a committed performance in his debut role. But it does, on occasion, come across as a cheap imitation when his voice gets a little goofy or he starts throwing some shapes, which only serves to remind you just how good Smith was in Fresh Prince. Banks would do well to develop his own reading of the character rather than mimic that which Smith served up.
The Banks are all present and correct: Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) is running for district attorney, and the only Black candidate in the race, Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman), once a rising star in the art scene, put all of that on the back-burner to support her husband's career and focus on their family, Hilary (Coco Jones) is a food influencer who refuses to sell her soul in pursuit of her dreams and Ashley (Akira Akbar), who barely features in the episodes we were given access to, is sharp as a tack.
Then there's Carlton, who's been given almost as much screen time as Will in the opening episodes. Unlike Alfonso Ribeiro's character, meeting this version of Phil and Viv's only son feels a lot like that moment in Sabrina the Teenage Witch when we're introduced to her evil twin Katrina.
In Fresh Prince, there was always tension between Carlton and Will as he sought to assert himself both at home and at school. He resented his cousin's laissez faire approach to life while he was bogged down by his own neurotic traits. That is dialled up to a hundred here, with Olly Sholotan playing Carlton as one of Will's biggest obstacles to settling into his new surroundings.
The character, who was very much a running gag of a man in Fresh Prince, has an unsettling edge to him here, which can largely be attributed to his drug habit. Unlike the Just Say Yo episode of Fresh Prince, when Carlton accidentally takes speed that he's mistaken for vitamins, here we see him regularly snorting Xanax, and possibly another substance at a house party, which feeds his worst attributes. Fresh Prince this is not.
Carlton's substance abuse is just one in a long line of topics that are tapped into in the first three episodes. Race, gender roles, the male ego, class, PTSD and family, to name just a handful, are all woven into the tapestry of this show in varying degrees. But with so much to say, Bel-Air ironically ends up saying very little at all in places.
While its willingness to have big conversations is admirable and important considering the number of younger viewers who will be tuning in, the rest of the series would benefit from doing less in order to really drill down into the subject matter.
Another area where Bel-Air stumbles is the dialogue, which often comes across as manufactured and stilted. At its most extreme, Will's mum sounds like a talking fortune cookie – "Your crown is waiting as soon as you find the courage to wear it" – and Aunt Viv also exhibits shades of that when she's trying to keep him in check.
Watching Bel-Air, it's impossible not to be reminded of the dearth of British shows that centre Black families, with streaming and linear channels continuing to fall short. The US has long outperformed the UK on that front, with TV executives and broadcasters on this side of the pond predominantly uninterested in playing catchup.
And while there are clear parallels between the two experiences, people want to see themselves and their lives reflected, warts and all, which is a luxury that white families, in their myriad guises, have enjoyed, albeit with some exceptions such as same-sex partner households.
There has never been more TV at our disposal and yet, the scales remain heavily weighted elsewhere.
Despite a somewhat clunky start, Bel-Air does begin to settle into a rhythm at the end of episode 3, and there will be some viewers, largely on the younger end of the spectrum, who will enjoy what they've watched so far, even if the new narrative developments can be telegraphed a mile off.
But while the legacy of Fresh Prince is forever, Bel-Air has got some way to go to reach those starry heights.