First look UK TV review: Bel-Air
Ivan Radford | On 07, Mar 2022
Bel-Air is available on Peacock, with new episodes arriving weekly on Mondays. This review is based on the opening four episodes.
Now this is a story all about how a hit 90s sitcom got flipped, turned upside down – because yes, after Morgan Cooper filmed a viral video in 2019 wondering what it would be like if The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were to be remade as a drama, that exact same thing has happened, with Cooper on board as writer, exec-producer and director. The result is at once an interesting genre exercise and a show that struggles to be more than just that, as the series attempts to escape from the shadow of the original.
There’s a self-defeating problem inherent to the premise, which is that the Fresh Prince did manage to tackle serious issues within its sitcom format – and its ability to juggle jokes alongside thoughtful comments on gun crime, racism and privilege made it a landmark show in more ways than one.
This new incarnation begins with the same essential premise: Will (Jabari Banks), a teenager growing up in West Philadelphia with his mum, has a promising life ahead of him, with his basketball skills all set to earn him a scholarship to a top college. But an altercation outside of school leads to him crossing paths with a gun and a gang leader and he finds himself spending the night in jail. His mum, played by April Parker Jones with a fear that’s all too resonant, decides to get him out of town rather than see him come home one night in a body bag. And so we follow Will as he arrives in Beverly Hills to stay with his Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and his wealthy family.
The differences become apparent immediately, as we learn that Phil is a ruthless, top-flight lawyer ready to run for district attorney. Will’s Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) has a soft spot for Will’s West Philly charisma, and knows the culture clash that Will will have to overcome to fit in, but the others are less welcoming. Ashley (Akira Akbar) is socially aware, but food influencer Hilary (Coco Jones) is mostly concerned with her own self-made career trajectory, while Carlton (Olly Sholotan) can’t see past his own status and ego.
It’s the latter that really strikes a different tone for the show, with Olly Sholotan sinking his teeth into the seething, insecure and jealous boy, who is so proud and under pressure that he resorts to snorting Xanax to keeping his cool. Let’s just say he’s not going to be dancing to Tom Jones any time soon.
There’s oodles of potential here for the show to examine the minutiae of upper-middle class, middle-class and working class life in modern Black America, comparing concepts of Black Excellence and success, examining responsibilities to one’s community and roots, challenging the systemic prejudices that can hold back any member of the Banks family, despite their financial security. The cast are certainly committed to delving into those nuances, but the script – as of the opening four episodes – doesn’t always give them a chance to do so, as it hurriedly jumps through fraternity tensions and school investigations with a surprising lack of time spent dwelling on the consequences of each person’s actions.
Cooper’s direction, though, balances out some of the rushed, shallow dialogue with a thoughtful, recurring motif that captures the PTSD Will’s still dealing with after his encounter with the police. The chemistry and friendship between Phil and Jimmy Akingbola’s Geoffrey also rings true, even as the latter gets his own unexpected back-story to ground events – and it’s in these kind of moments that Bel-Air finds a moving depth that’s all its own.
But by taking out the jokes in favour of a darker dissection of these still-timely themes – a move that more than justifies its own existence – the show loses the wit and rich layers that made its predecessor such a success in the first place. It’s less that going back to Bel-Air isn’t necessary and more that it’s got a tough challenge to live up to the standard of the original. After flipping things upside down, this feels like a series still finding its feet – in some ways, after that experimental short in 2019, it’s still in pilot mode. “Your crown is waiting as soon as you find the courage to wear it,” Will’s mum tells him early on. The question is whether, by the Season 1 finale, Bel-Air manages to grab it or not.