'Bel-Air': The 'Fresh Prince' reboot is much more than a crass nostalgia cash-in

Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)
Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks & Jabari Banks as Will in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)

This week sees the launch of Bel-Air, the long-awaited dramatic reboot of NBC's beloved 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on Peacock — streaming on Sky and NOW in the UK. When it was first announced, the question on many people's lips was: 'Do we really need a 'gritty' reboot of the garishly poppy Fresh Prince?'

Having watched a large part of the reboot's first season, we can confidently answer that for you: 'Yes, yes we do.'

Will Smith is a global commodity, who has worked hard to establish a brand audiences can instantly recognise. With a personality that goes up to eleven and movie star credentials to match, he has conquered multiple mediums garnering Oscar nominations on the way.

Read more: Fresh Prince stars settle decades-old feud

From Six Degrees of Separation through to this year’s King Richard, he remains a consistent box office draw and Oscar-worthy actor in waiting. However back in 1990 it was a different story, until music impresario Quincy Jones gave this rising rapping sensation his own show.

'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'. (Credit: Warner Bros/Sky)
'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'. (Credit: Warner Bros/Sky)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran for six seasons, turning Will Smith from an MTV ingenue into a major network draw overnight. It took a rags to riches narrative, employed that effortless charisma and put a solid cast around him.

For many it sits alongside The Cosby Show in terms of impact, both for actively advancing cultural identity, and crucially opening creative doors for other artists of colour. So much so, that audiences must be wondering why Peacock wanted to pour time and money into something that never needed it.

The answer is simple; Bel-Air is not just another crass cash-in looking to leverage nostalgia for an easy win. Instead, it breaks new ground through vivid reinvention, deploys some subtle hat tips to past glories, whilst pushing boundaries through coy characterisation.

Jabari Banks as Will & Jordan L. Jones as Jazz in Bel-Air (Peacock/Sky)
Jabari Banks as Will & Jordan L. Jones as Jazz in Bel-Air (Peacock/Sky)

New comer Jabari Banks is pivotal in making this happen, as he gets the unenviable task of filling those big shoes. As Will Smith he wears the mantle well, giving his own interpretation whilst retaining the quintessential swagger that so defines this character. Likewise, Jordan L. Jones adds a touch of the familiar as Jazzy Jeff, bringing just enough old skool to counterbalance those crucial new elements.

This ability to blend the old and new, instantly elevates what could have been a flat and uninspired re-tread into a completely different league. Phillip Banks, as personified in the original by James Avery, has lost his lovable edge and become inherently harder.

Watch a trailer for Bel-Air

Adrian Holmes strips away the stereotype of that sitcom setting in two minutes, offering up a more grounded portrayal which works well within this ensemble cast. Elsewhere, Olly Sholotan devotes an equal amount of time to reinventing Carlton, who carries his own issues into those first encounters with Will.

Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)
Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks & Akira Akbar as Ashley Banks & Adrian Holmes as Phillip Banks in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)

In many ways Bel-Air is a traditional rites of passage fable, which charts the journey of one person overcoming adversity. However, this particular story succeeds in deviating from the traditional paradigm by addressing issues of identity.

Read more: Will Smith pays tribute to Uncle Phil actor

In a culture increasingly defined by image, showrunners T.J Brady and Rasheed Newson have made sure to weave these pre-occupations into their approach. Coco Jones leans into this quite heavily, giving would-be influencer Hilary Banks an intriguingly militant attitude, which flies in the face of her cosseted lifestyle and spoilt brat exterior.

Coco Jones as Hilary Banks in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)
Coco Jones as Hilary Banks in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)

Elsewhere, Cassandra Freeman gives Vivian Banks some genuine fire and brimstone, adding an essential pathos in her quieter moments alone with Will. By moving the premise outside into a tangible reality, Bel-Air becomes a living breathing entity allowing these showrunners to really explore dramatic potential.

Without the intentional limitations of a sitcom structure, conflicts no longer need to be resolved in thirty minutes, but can form part of something more complex. Relationships are able to ebb and flow as they do in real life, while dramatic resolutions feel earned rather than resolved due to structural constraints.

Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)
Cassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)

However, something that does get carried over into this new iteration is some solid casting beyond the central players. Standouts include Jimmy Akingbola’s Geoffrey, who no longer waits on this updated Banks clan, but instead has an equal footing alongside Phillip as an old friend and confidante.

This London borne actor is another intentional piece of casting, that seeks to refresh and reinvent whilst updating the character for modern audiences. Brooding, forthright and an equal in every sense to his friend Phillip, this Geoffrey feels deeper, darker and a definitive keeper of secrets yet to be revealed.

Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)
Jimmy Akingbola as Geoffery & Adrian Holmes as Phillip Banks in Bel-Air (Sky/Peacock)

By switching the action between Bel-Air and Philadelphia, this new series also possesses an unpredictable sense of dramatic uncertainty. For a concept which traded on comedy, charisma and consistent central performances first time round, Bel-Air also looks to be proving a point.

With a dash of street gang mentality, a measure of tangible threat and an ensemble cast who never drop the ball, this may well be the reboot everyone is talking about before long.

With a solid season ahead and number two on back order, a fresh prince resurgence feels imminent.

Bel-Air is streaming on Peacock from 14 February, exclusively on Sky and NOW.

Watch: The cast of Bel-Air talk to Yahoo about the reboot