With shows like the polarizing Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That..., the spunky iCarly, and fan-favorite Dexter seeking new blood over at Showtime, it’s abundantly clear that we live in a day and age in which nostalgia is all the rage.
To that end, when beloved sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air experienced renewed life in 2019 in the form of a mock-trailer, conceived by filmmaker Morgan Cooper, it’s not exactly a surprise that the gritty reimaging—which starred promising actor Jerry Madison Jr. and transformed the buoyant Bel-Air we all knew and loved into a brooding contemporary drama—went viral.
As in super viral.
As in it was every-damn-where.
Will Smith co-signed it as “brilliant,” and echoed the rest of our sentiments with the following critique: “Morgan did a ridiculous trailer for Bel-Air,” he said, speaking into the camera while accompanied by the burgeoning filmmaker. “Brilliant idea, the dramatic version of The Fresh Prince for the next generation.”
He continued, “The dramatic version of these ideas means that you can use existing storylines. But it’s not going to seem like you’re redoing an episode because the storyline is going to be brand-new from the dramatic perspective.”
It almost sounded as if the man who spent six seasons harassing his cousin Carlton and tormenting Uncle Phil every Monday night on NBC was conceptualizing the miraculous rebirth of a sitcom that defined many of our childhoods.
And as it turns out, he was.
To satiate our cravings, we were treated to a virtual get-together with the original cast during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with HBO Max’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion following shortly thereafter—which flipped-turned our lives upside down by squashing decades of bad blood between the King Richard star and OG Aunt Viv, Janet Hubert. But it was behind the scenes, however, that Will’s production company, Westbook Studios, was putting the final touches on Cooper’s adaptation while also fielding offers from the likes of Netflix, the aforementioned HBO Max, and anyone else looking to cash in on what may become the next pop culture phenomenon.
Fast forward to 2022, and with the conclusion of Insecure leaving a gaping hole in our Sunday nights, we’re mere weeks away from the auspicious debut of Peacock’s Bel-Air, which seeks to capitalize off of the power vacuum created by Lawrence, Issa, and Molly’s absence.
But let’s get this out the way now: Bel-Air is not The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; nor does it aspire to be. To reinforce that distinction, Peacock bills its audacious reboot as a “contemporary dramatic reimagining of the beloved and culture-defining 90s sitcom”—and that description couldn’t be more accurate. While the show’s original incarnation chronicled Will’s collision course with Black opulence through the lens of boundless hijinks and hilarity, Bel-Air is decidedly much darker; firmly entrenched in the conflicts and emotions of our modern world while still honoring the spirit and innovation of its predecessor. So while you won’t see Carlton Banks embarrassing our ancestors to Tom Jones, you will see him still grapple with his identity and explore what it means to be Black through the prism of white kids who “don’t see color.”
As someone who’s had the privilege of partaking in a sneak peek of this new series—SPOILER WARNING: It’s good as hell—as well as having the luxury of hanging out with the entire ensemble cast during my set visit prior to the show’s premiere, I had one burning question: What made Cooper, who will usher in Bel-Air’s next chapter as the director, co-writer, and an executive producer of the titular series, decide to forage through our past and revisit such a profoundly revered series decades after it went off the air?
So I asked him.
“I was in my hometown of Kansas City and I was driving down the 71 highway,” he told The Root. “I was a cinematographer for years, so I see how faces and colors look. That meshes with the words and the colors I see. So it all just kind of hit me at once and it hasn’t really strayed away, in all honesty, even to this day. It all hit me. And I always believe in manifesting, so I made a call to my producer, put up the money to make the short, and now here we are.”
Not exactly the answer I was expecting, but since when does undeniable genius always make sense?
However, in order to tell a story all about how Will’s life got flipped-turned upside down, Cooper needed a conduit to help execute his vision. Enter newcomer Jabari Banks, who has the look and charisma of a teenage Will Smith while also possessing the unique ability to bridge the gap between the curiosity of Benny Medina’s original brainchild with the grit of its modernized interpretation.
It also doesn’t hurt that the University of the Arts graduate is from West Philly, too.
“This whole show is from the lens of 2022,” Banks told The Root, explaining his approach to his character. “There’s no way that I could approach it in a 1990s mindset. I just really focused on being me, staying true to what I know and how I grew up.”
To that end, Banks’ contributions to Bel-Air go well beyond merely regurgitating his lines. For what he lacks in industry experience—“I didn’t have any industry experience [before this series],” he readily admits—he more than makes up for by enriching the show’s authenticity. He played a crucial role in helping to bring the West Philly we see on screen to life, complete with dirt bikes and ATVs roaring down Arlington Street, incorporating local slang like “bul” and “jawn,” and a few cameo appearances that will definitely get Twitter talking. He also assured me that fans of the original series will be handsomely rewarded for being attentive.
“Our writers and the creators have been great with throwing in little nuggets from the original series,” he said. “So those really adamant, big fans are going to see little Easter eggs and callbacks to the original series and be excited about it.“
Fans will also be excited to know that the roles of Hilary Banks, played by Disney alumna Coco Jones; Ashley Banks, played by Good Trouble’s Akira Akbar; Aunt Viv, played by Cassandra Freeman; Uncle Phil, played by 19-2’s Adrian Holmes; and the incomparable Carlton Banks, played by Nigerian-American Olly Sholotan; are in more than capable hands. And much like the rest of the series, each of these beloved characters have been updated and revamped in order to better suit contemporary themes and audiences.
One of the best examples of this is Jones’ take on Hilary, who, unsurprisingly, is now an influencer who’s just as consumed with feeding her social media obsession as the rest of us. And for those of you wondering if she’ll reclaim her undisputed status as the flyest girl on primetime television, her signature fashion sense remains intact—with a deliberate nod to Black designers.
“Even when we were prepping for the show, we were having a lot of discussions about how I’m going to be portrayed. Because it’s so easy to get over-sexualized,” Jones told The Root. “[There was a] balance we were trying to find of being really relevant and modern without being overly sexual, and there was a conscious effort to include Black designers. We have a lot of Brandon Blackwood. It’s a goal to try to include at least one piece [from Black designers], if we can, in every look.”
Another character that’s undergone a notable metamorphosis is fan-favorite Geoffrey, who’s blossomed from a gregarious butler to conveying an almost Idris Elba-esque mystique. While the mystery behind this transformation is eventually revealed in later episodes, first impressions are important—and Jimmy Akingbola’s menacing presence is undeniable.
“When I got the audition, that was in the small print. They wanted Geoffrey with a bit of swagger. And I was like, ‘What? That’s a completely different Geoffrey!’” he told The Root with a laugh. “Then I thought, ‘If you’re going to create a new chapter of this classic, culture-defining sitcom, it has to be this way. It has to be a drama. [...] So it was really exciting for me to create this Geoffrey and get the license from [executive producers] T.J. [Brady], Rasheed [Newson], and Morgan to create a Geoffrey that’s got swagger; that has the essence of a top boy. He’s not a butler. We didn’t feel like that was right. If Phil’s the general, then Geoffrey’s the lieutenant.”
With Bel-Air, it finally feels like Black audiences are getting to join in on all of the nostalgic fun instead of getting our fix from decades-old reruns. And after spending an entire day with the cast, there’s something magical about the chemistry and excitement they share for what’s to come.
“We’ve grown so much as family and friends,” Banks said. “I’m ready for that connection with these people that I really care about. This is such a great opportunity to be able to connect with artists that care about the work as much as I do. We’re standing on something great. The shoulders of this are so wide, and we just run with it, you know? [I’m appreciative that] we’re able to do this together. It’s like we instantly connected because we’re like, ‘Okay, we know what we’re doing.’”
Bel-Air premieres on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 13) with three episodes at launch and new episodes released weekly.