Why 2022 needed a darker, more realistic 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
The new 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' reboot is here, and it looks different than the original
For many of us 1980 and ‘90s babies, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a fixture in our homes. Throughout its six-year run, the charming kid from West Philadelphia and the affluent LA family he entered into brought us humor and your occasional moment of moral high ground. It was the type of show that everyone in a room—no matter who you are or where you’re from—could enjoy watching.
Perhaps that’s why I shuddered when I heard the news of a reboot. Bel-Air, inspired by the 2019 short film by Morgan Cooper, promised a grittier, dramatic remake of the classic sitcom. I dared to ask why but then remembered—what’s old always becomes new again.
We need to look no further for proof than the smorgasbord of nostalgia we’ve been served over the past two years. Everything from Punky Brewster and Save by the Bell (again) to Gossip Girl and Sex and the City have been added to the spread, waiting for O.G. viewers and Gen Zers alike to take a bite. However, unlike so many of its sitcom contemporaries, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actually aged well. With the exception of some ‘90s fatphobia, I still find myself tearing up during its more dramatic moments and cracking up alongside its laugh tracks.
The humor of the original was exactly why I was nervous as I sat down to watch Bel-Air. I questioned whether Black people should have to stomach another “gritty” show, particularly after a recent uptick in trauma content with shows like Them and Two Distant Strangers. Across social media, Black people have been voicing their displeasure of black trauma porn, or content that portrays racism and other forms of suffering for entertainment purposes.
After the 2020 racial reckoning, the public trials of the murderers of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the January 6 Capitol attack and Kyle Rittenhouse walking free, many folks have turned to television to escape the weight of oppression. With Insecure off the air, I personally have been hungry for lighter fare or content that doesn’t take multiple episodes of The Office or A Different World to wash down.
Thankfully, Bel-Air isn’t trauma porn. It isn’t the twin of its predecessor. It’s something entirely different.
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Today, the reboot premiered on Peacock with its first three episodes, welcoming fans into a familiar world with the same names and locations, yet a remixed formula.
For starters, we meet "Will Smith" in the real-life West Philadelphia that had previously received much ado only through the character’s mention of it in that famous opening song. We see exactly where Will is “shootin' some b-ball outside of the school” and watch Will with his beloved Philly cheesesteak. We even hear a soundtrack featuring Philadelphia-bred artists, including J Cole, Meek Mill, and Beanie Sigel. The importance of Philly is so heavily emphasized in the first episodes that we understand that it’ll likely be a major source of continued real-world conflict and connection throughout the show.
And then there are the characters.
For Black people, the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was special not only because it had an entirely Black cast, but because it represented us in our fullness. We could be wealthy and remember our roots. We could be cool and smart. We could be funny and deep.
However, there are also limits when creating a half-hour comedy. And in the ‘90s, creating shows was much more formulaic than it is today. So, we got a Hillary that was mostly shallow. A Carlton that was mostly corny. A Phillip Banks that was mostly commanding. Much of the comedy took place when these archetypes were put into interesting, weird or uncomfortable situations with one another. But we loved it because it gave us moments such as Carlton dragging himself across the floor, Will and Carlton dancing to “Apache,” and Uncle Phil throwing out Jazzy Jeff for the umpteenth time.
The new hour drama allows for the show to add layers to the characters we know and love. This is most obvious with the new Hillary, played by the captivating Coco Jones. Hillary 2.0 is not just an entitled heiress to her daddy’s platinum card. No, she is a savvy business woman-in-the-making who has a keen awareness of who she is and a unique understanding for brand building. And, oh yeah, she can throw down in the kitchen, paying her rent in the form of serving as the house chef.
Alongside Hillary 2.0, Bel-Air also gives us a troubled Carlton; a smooth, house manager—not butler—Geoffrey; and a still sassy and lovable but potentially unsatisfied Aunt Viv. Will 2.0 remains cool and smart, but trades in some of the original character’s playfulness for more of the grit that the original show promised. Watching the episodes, I admittedly did, at times, long for a goofier Will and punchier Geoffrey, but most of the new characters are ushered in with a complexity that feels relevant and necessary for the world they’re living in.
And the world we’re living in today is much different than 30 years ago when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered—not in the racist and discriminatory acts we see or experience, but in the conversations and content that viewers expect. So, as I watched and wondered whether Black people are still entitled to the lightness that we received from the original series, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.
The history of Black people in America is not often light, and where many of us find ourselves is tied to this history. Excellence and struggle alike are trauma responses.
Therefore, it makes sense to use these nostalgic times to explore what sits beside the excellence of the Banks family, to show what comes with being "the only," "the first" or "the newbie" navigating their world. And that’s what Bel-Air does.
The Fresh Prince reboot may not be the answer to the collective malaise we’ve felt over the past couple of years, but Bel-Air seems to be thoughtful and rich content to watch as you navigate it. And the way I see it, I can always turn back to its predecessor for shenanigans and comedy, and use this new show to wash down a hard day with a sweet bit of mess and drama.
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