An excellent new family drama featuring a talented, likable cast debuts on Peacock Sunday. The fact that Bel-Air is a more serious reimagining of Will Smith’s iconic 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, should not be counted against it. The new show has an equally charming lead in Jabari Banks and captures a lot of the fish-out-of-water fun of the original, while raising the stakes to authentically address important and timely issues such as identity, race, class, trauma and addiction.
Like its source material, the hour-long remake focuses on Will (Banks,) a Philadelphia teen whose promising future is jeopardized when he gets mixed up in local gang violence. To keep him out of further trouble, his adoring mom Vy (April Parker Jones) sends him to live with her wealthy sister Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) and Vivian’s politically ambitious husband, Phillip (Adrian Holmes,) at their mansion in the posh titular California neighborhood.
On the way to the house from LAX, sage Uber driver Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) cautions Will that Los Angeles is an amazing place, but might make him forget who he is and where he came from if he’s not careful. Will seems to take that advice to heart.
Vivian and her daughters – socially conscious Ashley (Akira Akbar) and social media-obsessed Hilary (Coco Jones) – welcome Will with open arms, but Phillip and son Carlton (Olly Sholoton) are more reserved in their affections. Phillip genuinely wants to give Will a second chance, but he is concerned the chatty teen might upset his campaign for district attorney. Carlton is immediately jealous of the attention Will gets from family, classmates and, most importantly, Carlton’s down-to-earth ex-girlfriend Lisa (Simone Joy Jones.)
The first two episodes show working-class Will trying to fit into his new surroundings where everyone seems insulated by money and privilege. Staying true to himself and the code of honor he learned on the streets of Philly prevents a smooth transition, and Will initially makes more enemies than friends. His good grades, winning personality and skills on the basketball court, however, suggest he will eventually succeed in this alien world.
The show’s abundant use of profanity can be off putting, however, it seems the writers employed it intentionally so characters could make salient points on-screen about language, how it is used and what it says about people. For example, Vivian scolds Hilary for calling Carlton an obscene name at the breakfast table, while Will calls out a white kid for singing the N-word in a rap song with Carlton and his teammates in the high-school locker room.
Bel-Air is immensely watchable with sharp writing, a compelling story and great performances by the cast. All in all, the show is a worthy heir to the Fresh Prince throne.
The original series ran six seasons 1990-96, and co-starred Smith, James Avery, Alfonso Ribeiro, Tatyana Ali, Daphne Maxwell Reid and Janet Hubert. Smith is also an executive producer on Bel-Air.
Here’s the trailer of the series.