In a cultural moment where it feels like every show that’s ever aired is being brought back to life, the reboots and revivals that do work are especially welcome and worthwhile. One particular success story that could just as easily have been a total failure is Bel-Air, a dramatic remake of the popular 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air based on a viral trailer created by Morgan Cooper. In its first season, the series explored some of the same themes as the original show but managed to find new relevance in modern notions of race and class. Season two continues in that vein, expanding its exploration of its characters and their complicated lives.
Will (Jabari Banks) is no longer new to Los Angeles, and after moving out of his family’s mansion, he’s found a new way to keep up his lifestyle of luxury: his basketball skills. As he maintains good relationships with his family members but a careful distance from Phil (Adrian Holmes), he looks to resume his journey to professional sports that he had hoped might lead to glory back in Philadelphia. His cousins also confront new challenges and opportunities as both Phil and Viv (Cassandra Freeman) find returning to the workplace to be less simple and straightforward than they expected.
Season two, which was ordered by Peacock at the same time season one was commissioned, takes full advantage of the previous character development covered to allow every member of the ensemble to grow. Ashley (Akira Akbar), who was the least featured Banks child in season one, gets an immediate spotlight that allows her to share the stage with her siblings. Lisa (Simone Joy Jones) and Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) remain relevant even as they serve different purposes in Will’s life and that of the Banks family, given the opportunity to flesh out their own individual dynamics.
Carla Banks-Waddles joins Cooper as showrunner for season two, which also makes the bold step of casting one of the original show’s stars in a recurring role. Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley three decades ago, now portrays Mrs. Hughes, one of Ashley’s teachers whose unconventional style and desire to highlight forward-thinking authors gets her into trouble with the school administration. Following brief appearances from Daphne Maxwell Reid and Vernée Watson, the original Viv and Vy, respectively, in season one, getting Ali on board proves to be much more than stunt casting, yet another purposeful and intelligent pivot to make this new show work even better.
The large ensemble of Bel-Air ensures that there is more than enough happening at any given moment, and storylines that will understandably need to be picked up after brief pauses when other more pressing events are spotlighted. The editing and pacing of the series makes everything feel equally important, which is positive and productive, and should allow for many different entry points for audiences with varying interests. That Will no longer feels like the center of the show’s universe is a boon to the wealth of rich characters that populate its ensemble.
To choose any one standout from this cast would be difficult, and there’s also no weak link. Banks continues to probe how swagger and charm often mask fear and pain, and Holmes and Freeman offer three-dimensional interpretations of parenting and other challenges of adulthood. As Carlton and Hilary, Olly Sholotan and Coco Jones inject vulnerability and complexity into people most concerned with their outward appearances, and Jimmy Akingbola continues to deliver the starkest reinterpretation of an existing character, Geoffrey. Anyone who enjoyed and appreciated season one is sure to find season two satisfying, continuing on a bold and enticing new look at life in Bel-Air in 2023.
Season two of Bel-Air premieres on Thursday, February 23rd on Peacock.