B.el-Air is a reboot with its own remarkable origin story. In 2019, the independent film-maker Morgan Cooper had the audacity to make a trailer for an imaginary new version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, reshaping the 1990s sitcom as a tough, Ryan Coogler-style drama. Cooper might have dreamed that the clip would go viral and that the show would actually be made, with him still on board directing episode one. That’s happened, but this is a fairytale with a sad ending. The new Bel-Air (Peacock/Sky/NOW) is confused and joyless, a remake without a reason to exist.
Another kid called Will Smith moves hastily to LA to live with his rich aunt, uncle and cousins after an incident on a west Philadelphia basketball court. That run-in with the neighborhood bad guys is much graver than the one the previous incarnation of Will experienced – involving guns and the threat of jail time – and when Will gets to Bel-Air, everyone there is a serious operator, too.
Uncle Phil is now a focused, muscular lawyer with ambitions to be elected district attorney, and to own a colossal mansion rather than just a nice house. Aunt Viv is an artist and elegant socialite. Cousin Hilary is an Instagram influencer, because apparently there’s a law now that says someone in every new show has to be, while her brother Carlton has undergone the most profound change: instead of the preppy buffoon of old, he’s a pseudo-Shakespearean vortex of toxic pride and fractured self-image who is to be Will’s nemesis.
Since Bel-Air has chosen to retain the premise, character names and some of the title of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it invites comparisons. Such comparisons are not to its benefit. One of the countless magical properties of the sitcom format is that it has a particular ability to create moving dramatic moments, because viewers are wrongfooted when the clown mask suddenly drops: the Fresh Prince episode where Will and Carlton find themselves the victims of racist policing, for instance, or the one where Will’s neglectful father reappears and then abandons his son again, have extra power because they sneak up in the cloak of a gag-filled comedy.
With an hour an episode and no jokes to make, Bel-Air has all the time in the world to fashion drama about race, class and coming-of-age, but it ends up being less layered and guileful than its source material.
The limited characterization that doesn’t necessarily matter in a comedy, but does in a straight drama, is no more detailed than in the original Fresh Prince. Take Will himself, whose insistence on maintaining his Philly smarts was fuel for a thousand funny comebacks when he was a sitcom protagonist: as played by the restless Jabari Banks, the new Will’s refusal to adapt to his surroundings – a cliched fantasy of walk-in closets, Lexuses and neon-lit pool parties – turns him into an annoying caricature of stubborn teen ingratitude, ranged against Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) as a stiff scold who constantly goes on about how Will’s behavior will affect “my campaign”.
The drama’s grandest aim is to take the idea of a privileged family looking after their disadvantaged relative, and use it to examine the guilt of the black upper-middle class. But because the scripts can never resist going down the easiest route, the show’s handling of racial politics seems rudimentary – particularly when held next to recent series that have covered similar ground, such as Dear White People, ella She ella ‘s Gotta Have It or Black-ish.
A scene where Will is angered by a white student saying the N-word, and another where Hilary is offered a magazine job on the condition that she tone down her blackness, are both undermined by how starkly they’re set up and how readily the correct answer is arrived at. Of course these are still live issues and any reminder of them is valuable, but where the aforementioned recent shows felt as if they were pushing the discourse forwards and creating challenging drama into the bargain, Bel-Air does neither.
Perhaps it wants to hit a younger demographic, as shown by the way episode two trots out the familiar plots of a standard high-school drama. But that’s unlikely to work either: trivial storylines such as Will trying out for the basketball team jar with the show’s monotonous intensity, which demands that everything everyone says is a self-aggrandising speech or a vicious telling-off. Coco Jones as the funny, energized Hilary offers some respite, but not much.
Once upon a time, Will from west Philly was miles from home, but the show he was in knew exactly what it was and where it was going. Bel-Air finds that a difficult trick to replicate.