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Peacock’s Soapy Fresh Prince Reboot Bel-Air Asks: What Does Black Excellence Mean Now?

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Handsome, funny, and oozing charisma, Will Smith would have excelled at anything he attempted as a 21-year-old rapper in 1990. Luckily for kids growing up in that decade, he turned to the small screen in the now-classic NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Viewers drawn in by Smith’s energetic presence found much more to love than one famous face. Each member of the rich, stuffy yet loving Banks clan became a foil for Will’s street-smart extroversion, and every actor in the ensemble shined. As Tatyana Ali, who played Will’s cousin Ashley, observed in a 2020 reunion special, “Our show meant Black excellence to people.”

That kind of comedic chemistry would be impossible to recreate. To its credit, Peacock’s passable reboot, whose first three episodes will arrive on the platform Feb. 13, doesn’t try. Inspired by a spot-on spoof trailer for a dark Fresh Prince adaptation that went viral in 2019, Bel-Air (which includes both the video’s mastermind, Morgan Cooper, and Smith among its executive producers) repurposes the original series’ premise as fodder for a soapy drama. Newcomer Jabari Banks’ Will is a West Philadelphia basketball phenom who sees his Division I future thrown into uncertainty when he’s arrested with a gun after a run-in with a gangster. Enter Will’s powerful, semi-estranged lawyer uncle, to make the charges disappear and keep him safe in one of L.A.’s most luxurious ZIP codes.

Bel-Air - Season 1
Olly Sholotan and Jabari Banks in 'Bel-Air'Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

In this telling, Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) is running for district attorney on a platform of ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and Will fears he’s a campaign prop. Promoted from butler to “house manager,” Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola) advises Phil over games of pool. Tensions flare between Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman), who abandoned a promising art career to raise her three kids, and the Banks’ eldest daughter Hillary (Coco Jones), an influencer striving to break into the culinary industry. While young Ashley (Akira Akbar) doesn’t make much of an impression in early episodes, the new Carlton (Olly Sholotan) comes as a legitimate shock. Hardly a nerd, Will’s preppy, lacrosse-playing, Xanax-snorting cousin rules Bel-Air Academy with a haughty glare—and he has no intention of sharing the spotlight.

Bel-Air doesn’t feel distinct enough from TV’s many rich-people soaps to become a classic. The dialogue can sound stiff, and constant references to both the original show and Cooper’s video get tiresome. Yet it does have all the makings of a solid drama. True, he’s no Will Smith—there’s only one of those—but Jabari Banks makes a magnetic lead in his own right, wisely toning down the character’s exuberance for a genre without laugh tracks. And as the season progresses, story lines that touch on Black fraternities, the community obligations of wealthy Black families and intergenerational disagreements over calling out racism raise an intriguing question: Three decades after The Fresh Prince, what does Black excellence look like now?

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