How you feel about 'Bel-Air' may depend upon how you feel about CW dramas : Pop Culture Happy Hour What if you took The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but made it a gritty, modern drama where Will is sent to Bel-Air to avoid facing an illegal gun possession charge? That's the basic premise of Bel-Air — the reboot of the classic 90s sitcom that made Will Smith a TV star. Jabari Banks steps into the role of Will, who this time around is less a goofy charmer and more a cool star athlete. It's a show that barely resembles its predecessor, with each member of the Banks family getting a radically dramatic makeover, too.

How you feel about 'Bel-Air' may depend upon how you feel about CW dramas

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

So what if you took "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," but this time it's a gritty, modern drama where Will is sent to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air to avoid facing an illegal gun possession charge? Well, that's the basic premise of "Bel-Air," the new, dark reboot of the classic '90s sitcom that made Will Smith a TV star. It's a show that barely resembles its predecessor. Jabari Banks steps into the role of Will, who, this time around, is less a goofy charmer and more a cool star athlete, and each member of the Banks family has gotten a radically dramatic makeover, too. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Bel-Air" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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A HARRIS: Joining us today is NPR Music editorial assistant LaTesha Harris. Welcome back, LaTesha.

LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Aisha. Great to be back again.

A HARRIS: Yeah (laughter). Also joining us is the co-host of the podcast "FANTI," journalist Jarrett Hill. Welcome back to you, too, Jarrett.

JARRETT HILL: Hey, boo, hey.

A HARRIS: Hey (laughter). So on "Bel-Air," there's a more disturbing version of the one little fight that brought Will Smith to the West Coast. This time around, Jabari Banks plays Will. He's a star basketball player in his hometown of West Philly, hoping to get recruited for college. His plans are jeopardized when he gets arrested for gun possession during a confrontation with a notorious drug lord. He spends one night in jail before being bailed out. His Uncle Phil, played by Adrian Holmes, has pulled some strings and gotten the charges dropped. The next thing you know, Will is being flown out to live in LA until things die down at home.

Uncle Phil has a motive for this gesture. He's campaigning to become LA's district attorney, and he doesn't need the bad press. Aunt Viv, played by Cassandra Freeman, is assisting with his campaign, though she's also feeling the urge to return to her roots as an artist. Coco Jones plays oldest daughter Hilary, a budding chef influencer trying to build her brand. And Akira Akbar plays youngest sibling Ashley, who's learning what it means to be queer. And then there's Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. Carlton is a Xanax-snorting lacrosse star on campus who's prone to outbursts and OK with his white friends using the N-word.

HILL: Whoo.

A HARRIS: He and Will clash over politics, as well as Carlton's ex-girlfriend, Lisa, who's played by Simone Joy. The series was inspired by Morgan Cooper's viral fake trailer, imagining a dramatic version of "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air." Cooper serves as an executive producer on "Bel-Air," alongside Will Smith, and it's streaming now on Peacock. So Jarrett, let me start with you. What are your initial impressions of "Bel-Air"?

HILL: So Aisha, I'm ready to fight.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: I actually disagree with some of the framing here...

A HARRIS: OK.

HILL: ...'Cause I feel like a lot of people reference this as being dark, and I think of it as being a drama. I think when you juxtapose it to the original one, sure - right? - it's darker, but I don't think of it as dark. I think of this show as being something that would have been really, really well-placed at The CW, and then they took it to premium cable.

A HARRIS: I'm so glad you said that.

HILL: Yeah, it feels young...

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: ...In a way that I probably would not have ordinarily been watching this show. But it's also, like, giving premium cable vibes with being able to swear and being a little sexier and being a little bit more elevated than a CW show, which kind of keeps me into it. So, like, when I first heard about this happening, I've been excited since the very beginning. I remember, like, previewing the first three episodes and calling friends and being like, oh my god, girl, you got to see "Bel-Air." It's going to be everything. Like, I love it. I feel like someone who probably drank Kool-Aid and didn't know it, but I'm way in on it. I'm way in.

A HARRIS: (Laughter) I mean, look, I think your point about it being dark in comparison to "Fresh Prince" is true, although I do think "Fresh Prince" was actually dark in its own way. I think to me, the biggest sort of turn - and I think most of us would agree - is that Carlton is kind of a villain, at least for the first, like, few episodes of this show. Like, he is giving full-on Stephen from "Django" vibes - like, the Samuel L. Jackson character. He is a villain in a sort of Batman-like way (laughter).

HILL: So I don't think you're wrong, right? He's definitely giving - honey, it's giving antagonist vibes all day, every day.

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: But I think what's really interesting about this reboot, especially in comparison to a lot of the other ones that we've seen, is that while it is tonally completely different than the original show, the themes that these characters are following are very accurate to the original show, to the source material, right? Like...

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: Uncle Phil and Carlton were not thrilled about Will at first, right? Ashley...

A HARRIS: Where is Ashley?

L HARRIS: She's happy to be there (laughter).

HILL: I mean, like, I'm hoping she doesn't do like Judy on "Family Matters" - go upstairs and never come back down.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: Oh.

HILL: But, like, I...

A HARRIS: It's trending that way. I'm just...

HILL: I mean, it certainly feels like that, no tea. But I'm enjoying it. I'm loving it.

A HARRIS: Yeah. LaTesha, how about you?

L HARRIS: Oh, Jarrett, we're going to fight this episode.

HILL: I told you I felt like fighting. I told you.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Well, you know what? There's a lot of fighting on "Bel-Air," so this actually...

L HARRIS: There's a lot of fighting on "Bel-Air."

A HARRIS: ...It works.

L HARRIS: My thing is when you say that this feels like a CW show that went up to primetime cable, is that not a drag to you?

HILL: No, not at all.

L HARRIS: Oh, my goodness.

HILL: When I say it feels like a CW show, I mean, like, it feels like a show for a younger audience, like, that's set in high school, and...

A HARRIS: It's "All American."

HILL: Yeah.

L HARRIS: Yes.

HILL: I mean, it centers around these teenagers. And, like, but it's also elevated in that, like, it feels more grown. It feels like it has a bigger budget than we might see sometimes on a CW show. And so I mean it in that way, and I mean that in the most positive ways.

L HARRIS: See, when I'm hearing what you're saying, I think those are all my things that are wrong with the show. I think tonally it's inconsistent. It doesn't really understand itself that well. And I think there's also just an oversaturation of prestige TV at the moment, and "Bel-Air" feels like a really unfortunate byproduct of that. Like, it expands its scope, which lets in a lot of realistic texturization. You know, it's more Philly, it's more LA, it's more Black wealth. Like, it's really much more alive than "The Fresh Prince" in a way. Like, those felt like characters on a screen, but these characters kind of feel like people you'd see running down the street and be like, oh, I don't know about that one.

HILL: (Laughter).

L HARRIS: And it's also just, like, narratively kind of all over the place. Like, it's not really fulfilling or gripping to me. I'm thinking it's kind of like Black "Dynasty" or Black "Succession" but without the grippingness (ph) of either one of those. Every moment is just so dramatic that it undercuts every other actual emotional moving moment. But that all being said, I don't hate it. Like, I appreciate it, but I very much prefer "The Fresh Prince" because its political consciousness is not wholly informed by soundbites on Twitter, which I really appreciate. And also, the yesified (ph) Geoffrey in "Bel-Air" scares me.

A HARRIS: (Laughter).

L HARRIS: Like, I don't know who that is. I don't know why he's there. He's just lingering and lurking in the background, just scaring the heck out of me.

A HARRIS: So Geoffrey is played by Jimmy Akingbola. He is no longer just, like, a butler. He's now sort of Phil's right-hand man and is the guy who's like, I'll take care of that.

L HARRIS: Bodyguard who kills people.

A HARRIS: Well, does he? We don't - do we know that for sure?

L HARRIS: Well, we don't know that because the show won't tell us anything.

A HARRIS: He seems like he's probably handled people, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: He's definitely giving Huck from Pope & Associates on "Scandal," right? Like, he's taking care of things.

A HARRIS: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

L HARRIS: (Laughter) Yes, he is.

A HARRIS: I think that, in a way, this - at least amongst us, this comes down to taste. Like, I'm more with LaTesha where, like, immediately I thought, like, this is the CW with cursing. And that was a turnoff for me. But I understand why there are people - like, there is an audience for that. I want to start with what I actually like about the show before I, you know...

HILL: Wow.

A HARRIS: ...Dig into it a bit.

HILL: The word actually did a lot of work there. I just want to point that out.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Get out. I do appreciate, and I find interesting, the relationship between Hilary and Vivian.

L HARRIS: Yes.

A HARRIS: Because there's this sort of generational pull here. There's also this, like, Black respectability pull that's going on that I think is really interesting. Because Hilary wants to be this influencer chef person, and her mom is kind of ashamed of her, that she has not finished school and is kind of going the social media route, which she looks down upon. And it's like, this is not a real career and is embarrassed to, like, present her to her sister - her sorority sisters and all those things.

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COCO JONES: (As Hilary Banks) So after two semesters, I pulled a good, old Kanye dropped out of college.

CASSANDRA FREEMAN: (As Vivian Banks) Why are you self-sabotaging?

JONES: (As Hilary Banks) Why are you trying to control my narrative?

FREEMAN: (As Vivian Banks) Well, forgive me for trying to create some actual opportunities for you.

JONES: (As Hilary Banks) I can create my own opportunities without you, Mother.

A HARRIS: I think that's really interesting, and I like the sort of push and pull of that dynamic. And it's not something I've seen with a Black mother and Black daughter before on TV, so it's kind of cool to see.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: Where I have issues is really, like, this show doesn't really know what it wants to be. Like, it wants to be very much like an HBO-y type of show, I think, or that's what I'm getting.

L HARRIS: Yes.

A HARRIS: But there's just so much dialogue that feels very stilted in a way.

L HARRIS: Yes.

A HARRIS: And Ashley - we talked about Ashley briefly, but, like, she's basically nowhere to be seen here for a lot of it. And when she does pop up, it's all about her just being queer. And I'm like, can't she have some other - like, obviously great to have that representation.

HILL: Like, does she like potato chips? Like...

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Like, she literally just comes up and, like, all of a sudden, we haven't even - it's like we're middle of the season, and the first, like, substantial thing we hear from her is like, I think I'm gay, which is fine, but, like, she needs to be more than just that. Like, she needs to be - in order for this to be a progressive representation of a queer young woman, it needs to - she needs to be more than just that because that's what people are. They're multidimensional. It is really hard to find shows these days that have the best of intentions but don't sound like they're coming off of Twitter and, like, they're not coming out of Twitter, and I don't think that this show succeeds at that. Like, when I think about what I would want this show to be - well, first of all, I'd want it to, like, not be connected to "Fresh Prince" (ph) because I think, like...

L HARRIS: Yes.

A HARRIS: ...I can't separate the two. And plus, they throw in these references here and there that are just, like, oh, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEL-AIR")

FREEMAN: (As Vivian Banks) Are you all right? And after everything that happened...

JABARI BANKS: (As Will Smith) Yeah. It's all good, Aunt Viv. You know, got in one little fight and my mom got scared.

FREEMAN: (As Vivian Banks) I'm just so happy you're OK.

A HARRIS: But what I would want this show to be is more like something like "Queen Sugar," which is doing a lot of those same things and is talking about all of those issues, but it's like weaved in in a very, very thoughtful and organic way that is not happening here. And I don't need a carbon copy of "Queen Sugar," but I would love to see another show that sort of approaches it in that way as opposed to like a CW or, like, Lee Daniels-esque kind of way.

L HARRIS: Not Lee.

HILL: Ooh, no she didn't take the left-hand turn right there at the end.

A HARRIS: And here's the thing - look; I loved "Empire."

HILL: Same.

A HARRIS: Like, don't get me wrong.

HILL: Yeah.

A HARRIS: But like, this show is not even - it's in the middle.

L HARRIS: Yes.

A HARRIS: Like, it doesn't go all the way to "Empire" levels, but it's not "Queen Sugar". So like, what are we here?

HILL: So again, as someone who does love the show, Aisha, I don't think your analysis is wrong either. I mean, I still want to fight.

A HARRIS: (Laughter)

L HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: But I think what's interesting about it, though, is I'm really curious to see what happens in this show Season 2 because I think Season 1, there's this want to stay connected to the original source material. And I think a show like this has to then become its own show at some point.

L HARRIS: Yes.

HILL: And I think, like, Carlton, for instance - we talk about Carlton kind of being the antagonist villain, right? Carlton actually still feels accurate to Carlton for me. If we think about - like, Carlton back in the day was a Black Republican, which hit real different in the '90s...

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: ...Than it does in the 2020s, right?

A HARRIS: (Laughter) Yes.

HILL: Carlton being a Black dude that would let his white friends say the N-word? I actually buy that.

A HARRIS: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

L HARRIS: Me, too.

HILL: 'Cause 1990s Carlton would have definitely done that, right?

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: The idea that Carlton is sliding his face across a mirror at parties - I believe it.

L HARRIS: That one I have problems with 'cause we all remember that episode of Carlton doing speed and getting freaked out, no?

A HARRIS: Yeah, well, Carlton was like - Carlton was a nerd. And this Carlton is not a nerd within the, like - he is the big man on campus...

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: ...Within that confine, you know?

HILL: He's loved by the white people on campus.

A HARRIS: Right.

HILL: You know what I mean? And that is how Carlton felt to me in the old show, in "The Fresh Prince".

A HARRIS: Oh, yeah.

HILL: It seemed to me that Carlton didn't feel like he fit in either world - right? - as...

L HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: ...A Black person or as a person at his school. And I think that this progression of Carlton's story now, I think it feels really honest because, like, I could see that Carlton from the '90s, if he were plugged into 2022, being class president - right? - you know, being on the lacrosse team. And like, I was actually surprised that he had a Black girlfriend - right? - that, like, Lisa was his ex-girlfriend, that surprised me.

L HARRIS: I didn't believe that.

A HARRIS: I was kind of confused by that, too. I was like, why would this girl be into Carlton? And then when you think about the fact that her family is so intertwined with his, it's like, OK, yeah, I guess when you're, like, 15 or 16 and this is the only brother - one of the other brothers at the school, like, and your families are already, like, besties, I guess I can see that happening. But we've talked about Carlton, we've started talking about Ashley and Hilary. But, like, Will Smith, in the original version, was very much the sort of center of that, and it was built around him. And I'm curious what you think about Jabari Banks here and his performance and what he's doing with the role because I guess he's charismatic, but he's definitely not boisterous in the same way as, like, the actual Will Smith was.

L HARRIS: I think Jabari Banks, for this role, is a phenomenal star. I think there's a lot of charisma to him and his - there's a lot of charm to his acting. I think sometimes when I'm watching him in "Bel-Air," I kind of see that he's putting on a little bit of a skin and trying to be Will Smith rather than, like, acting in the way Will Smith would act. I feel like he nails the mannerisms and just different things about Will Smith, but doesn't always carry it in a way that feels holistic to his acting. I think he's doing a really great job. It's just sometimes very jarring to see him acting it up like this 'cause the show goes from letting him shine as Will Smith to a bunch of other different things very quickly. So those moments when he's, like, really, like, chopping it up, like, doing his Philly thing are really, really nice to see. But they just feel so out of place amongst everything going on in the show, you know?

HILL: So I think the thing that's interesting with Jabari is I don't think most people are considering this is his first acting credit. I'm at the end of Will Smith's - the actual Will Smith's - book, and he talks a good amount about how that was the first time he'd ever acted was on "Fresh Prince," right?

A HARRIS: Yup.

HILL: And he talks about how he was like, I was such a bad actor. All I wanted to do was get James Avery's approval. And like, if you watch early episodes, I'm...

A HARRIS: Mouthing the words.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Mimicking the lines of other people 'cause I memorized the entire script, right?

A HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: There's something that is even parallel about Jabari Banks coming into this role. We're not even talking about the fact that his real last name is Banks, right?

A HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: But like - which is crazy by itself. But I think what's also great about Jabari is he does have his own charm. He's very handsome. He's got this great smile. He's a dashing guy. And I think he's going to have to find his way into this role, and I think he's doing a pretty good job of it. But I think that there's a real challenge - Will Smith talks about one of - the best piece of advice that he ever got came from Alfonso Ribeiro when they first started the show. And it was, whatever you do, call yourself Will Smith because whatever they call you on this show, people will call you for the rest of your life. And so they named the character Will Smith.

So there's Willard Smith from West Philly. And then there's, like, italicized Will Smith the character, right? And I think that there's got to be an interesting challenge for Jabari of figuring out, like, how much of italicized Will Smith is Willard Smith...

L HARRIS: Yeah.

HILL: ...Right? - and how much of it can he bring Jabari to? And so once it kind of gets out of the feeling that it needs to represent the old show and that it can become its own thing, I'll be really curious to see where the show goes from there.

A HARRIS: Yeah. I think all the points you made about Jabari are really, really good. And I do like him in this role. Like, I think he does have a very large task in front of him. And I think he pulls it off pretty well. And I can totally see this sort of smooth star athlete guy. Like, I buy that. And I think it's really interesting.

Before we close out, I feel like we've seen so many of these sort of, like, quote-unquote, "Black excellence" shows popping up, where it's, like, presenting this idea of Black excellence, maybe challenging it. But, like, at the end of the day, so much of it is wrapped up in, like, capitalism and wealth and, like, this display of wealth. I'm also thinking of, where do you think this show sits in terms of, like, other shows and other pop culture examples when it comes to, like, this idea of Black excellence and, like, what does that even mean? Where does it fit in that sort of conversation?

L HARRIS: Angelica Jade had a really good review that basically sum this up. But basically just the idea that the Banks through being these wealthy, politically powerful individuals are going to be, you know, the new masters and show that their wealth is, like, an - a tribute to Black excellence - I think that's nothing new. We've had this, like, plot and conversation multiple times over different TV shows multiple times. But the thing - at the end of the day, like, Black capitalism and, like, Black wealth isn't going to do anything for us. So having to see this in another TV show is just exhausting to me. I think "Bel-Air" thinks that it's bringing new ideas to the table and, like, being inventive with what it wants to say. But I really don't think that it is. I think it's very trite and overdone.

HILL: I would say - I mean, more broadly from, like, just the concept of Black excellence even removed from "Bel-Air" for a second, this idea of Black excellence is something that has increasingly frustrated me because I feel like it is the manifestation of the you have to be twice as good to be half as far.

L HARRIS: Yes.

HILL: And, like, the way that that has shown up in culture today is this concept of Black excellence, right? And there's a song. The song is called "Black Averageness" by Shad, and I really enjoy it. It's about, like, I'm not excellent. I'm regular, and that's fine. And I do wonder what it says to most people - right? - Black people specifically, like, that we have to be excellent to even be acknowledged - right? - or to have, like, any kind of space. To then look at that through the lens of "Bel-Air" - I think it's interesting because, like, we have this attachment to Black wealth that immediately equates to Black excellence that I don't always think is necessarily the same, right?

A HARRIS: Right.

HILL: Because we have this attachment to the idea of wealth always meaning extraordinary-ness (ph). That's a word. I'm a wordsmith.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: We do that because, like, capitalism has told us that wealth is the only way that you can really be successful. And so I don't necessarily watch this show and think of them as, like, Black excellence on display so much as, like, they are a wealthy, prominent family and, like, they're having to figure - navigate the world in the way that they do, which obviously brings up Black excellence in a lot of different ways. But I'm increasingly challenged by our culture's attachment to the idea of Black excellence. I feel like it is a little bit exhausting, even as, you know, excellently Black people.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: (Laughter).

L HARRIS: I think also, like, the characters in "Bel-Air," consider themselves Black excellence and trying to convince me that they're also extraordinary. But for me, just seeing them do the things - like, seeing Hilary go after her cooking career and try to figure out things for herself, seeing Aunt Viv get back into painting and just kind of figuring things out for yourself - to me, that is excellent, regardless of this posturing. And I think the show suffers from posturing too much. I think in the vein of wanting to be, you know, regular degular (ph), I would be perfectly fine accepting "Bel Air" as it is 'because I don't need Black excellence in a show. I just want to see Black people doing things. I know I sound like a hater. But I don't hate it that much. And I'm really happy that it's on screen. It's just more of a concern with, like, Black wealth and what it means to constantly be seeing these images and being fed this narrative that we have to be excellent and that our excellence will somehow contribute to an amassing of wealth later on.

A HARRIS: Those are great points. And I think it's safe to say that we all had thoughts about the show, and a lot of it came down to just whether we like CW shows or not.

L HARRIS: (Laughter).

A HARRIS: But (laughter)...

HILL: Wow.

A HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "Bel-Air." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. LaTesha Harris, Jarrett Hill, thank you both for being here.

HILL: Absolutely.

L HARRIS: Thank you, Aisha.

HILL: Thanks for having us.

A HARRIS: This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now. And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be discussing the film "After Yang."

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