In 2019, Kansas City filmmaker Morgan Cooper’s four-minute trailer for an imagined film version of the ‘90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” set the Internet abuzz. The juicy idea? Flipping the premise of the lighthearted comedy series — about a teenager from rough-and-tumble West Philadelphia sent to live with rich relatives in California — and turning it upside down as a gritty, realistic drama set in modern-day America. Almost immediately, the fan-film caught the attention of the original Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, who loved what he saw and connected with Cooper, with an eye toward a television reboot.
On Feb. 13, “Bel-Air,” a single-camera drama, premieres on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. The premise is the same as “Fresh Prince,” only fleshed out. West Philly teenager Will Smith (charismatic newcomer Jabari Banks) is a bright student and accomplished athlete with his sights set on a Division I basketball scholarship. But when a low-level drug dealer starts flexing, Will gives into his competitive and cocky side, and his swagger leads to a violent confrontation that spins out of control, raising the ire of both the police and a West Philly drug kingpin.
To protect her son, Will’s mother sends him to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Los Angeles. “You gotta second chance, baby,” she tells Will. “Don’t waste it.” Suddenly, this street-smart kid is a fish-out-of-water thrust into a world of wealth and privilege, living the high life inside a gated mansion in swanky Bel Air.
While “Bel-Air” showrunners T.J Brady and Rasheed Newson say they wanted to “keep the heart and soul of the original” and mine its subtext, they acknowledge that the world has changed. “Everyone was really intrigued by the question that Morgan’s trailer posed: In 2022 America, what does it look like for someone to have to leave their environment because of danger and go to a completely new environment full of privilege?” says Brady.
The advantage that “Bel-Air” has, Newson says, is that “people already have a deep knowledge of and connection to these characters, so all that familiarity and those feelings are baked in.”
While Brady says Will still has “the humor, charisma, and open-hearted nature” that endeared him to viewers of “The Fresh Prince,” he now also has to “wrestle with the consequences of his actions.”
With a drama, Will has to be grounded in reality and given room to evolve. “So he’s going to show more vulnerability. He’s going to express more pain,” Newson says. “The [sitcom] Will was just pure charisma and laughs. With this one, he needs more layers to peel back. He has to be discovering something new about himself throughout the season.”
Indeed, one thing he learns is that he needs to dream bigger and expand his horizons. “When he comes out to Bel Air, there’s more opportunities, more glamour, more glitz, and I think he’s realizing, ‘Oh, I could have a bigger part on a bigger stage,’ ” Newson says. “That’s both enticing and dangerous.”
Newson and Brady were already on the writing staff when they were tapped to take over as showrunners (Cooper directed the pilot and is an executive producer). In figuring out their vision, the first question centered on the drama’s style and tone. “I think previous versions were probably more in Will’s POV completely,” Brady says. “What we found is that this show works best as a family drama with Will as your lead and an ensemble cast where everyone else is also able to shoulder stories.”
That allowed the showrunners — a writing and producing team who have worked on a diverse array of series including “The Chi,” “Narcos,” “The 100,” “Shooter,” and “Army Wives” — to shake things up and add new dimensions to the characters, including social-media savvy cousin Hilary (Coco Jones); tough-yet-loving uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes), a wealthy lawyer who sees a reflection of his younger self in Will; and nurturing Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman), who is reminded of her Philly roots and the dreams she gave up with Will’s arrival.
The relationship between Will and his cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is given more complexity. In the original, Will was the top dog and Carlton the sidekick who was often the butt of Will’s jokes. “With this show, Carlton is the Prince of Bel Air,” Newson says. “He’s popular and has his own cachet and his own swagger. So they’re more equally matched when they come into conflict this season.”
The series will also get real. Brady says they want viewers to debate and engage in “hard, difficult discussions” about the issues the series explores, including race, class, and what it means to be Black in America. Because Will has been raised by a single mom, Newson explains, “His view of masculinity and what it is to be a Black man is very different than Carlton’s and very different from Uncle Phil’s.
“What’s been great about the show is having them clash, having them be in conversation with each other and informing one another and ultimately making Will a better man through those examples.”
Starring: Jabari Banks, Adrian Holmes, Cassandra Freeman, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar, Jimmy Akingbola, Jordan L. Jones, Simone Joy Jones
On: Peacock. Premieres Feb. 13, new episodes weekly
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.