Bel-Air is a remarkable achievement in television. This Peacock original series offers audiences an in-depth look inside a story they already are familiar with. Here’s a quick refresher if you didn’t grow up in the 90s. Will Smith from West Philadelphia. He gets into a fight with some bad people trying to defend his friend. As a result, his mom arranges for him to move to Bel-Air, a very wealthy part of Los Angeles, where he can live with his aunt and uncle and their family while continuing his education through to college. Will add a lot of West Philly flair to his new California setting, and the family learns to love all of the interesting eccentricities Will’s style and personality bring to their lives.
Some might say that the thing that really makes this reboot stand out is the choice to turn it into a drama. That may well be true, but how major situations in the overall story are approached changes all of the family and friend dynamics within this show. Jabari banks as Will Smith is far beyond impressive in his TV debut. The level of class and arrogance he brings to the character is absolutely unmatched. In his performance in this pilot, there are times when he literally looks like a younger Will Smith and has the same emotional range as a seasoned actor, even though this is his first credited role. I’m amazed by his poise, restraint, and vulnerability, sometimes all within the same scene. This actor has a long way to go in the industry if he can keep bringing powerful, engaging performances like that.
Another standout that deserves to be mentioned is Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks. He gives Carlton a level of dimension that we all had hoped would be tapped in the original series. The main thing that is addressed with that character is how much he blends into the affluent Caucasian society and chooses not to ruffle any feathers. Many would call what Carlton exhibits imposter syndrome. They wouldn’t be wrong.
As much as this show lives and dies on its performances, its real strength is in the detail of the camera work and the conversations had both inside the mansion and at the pool party near the end of the first episode. This pilot shows that Bel-Air is not just another fish out of water story. It’s about showing a young man who he can be and having the strength to do so with a level of independence and style that he didn’t have before. The show has a great message about being yourself and knowing how to not let the world break you. Bel-Air is the kind of show many young adults need right now. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that struggle is a natural part of life, and how you deal with both makes you a success in life.
Themes like these weren’t presented as clearly in the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but I’m glad they’re being addressed here. Those themes are ideas that have been neglected for a very long time, and I’m delighted that they get a chance to be pushed to the forefront in this series. My only hope is that it continues long term, and we get to watch Will grow, change and be himself. That’s the only way the Prince will get the crown. Until then, we’ll just have to watch how and when he ascends to his true throne.