From time to time, a video will go so viral that it helps its creator get a job in the TV or movie business, like when Sarah Cooper’s Trump impressions on social media landed her a Netflix comedy special. It’s far rarer, though, for the viral video to simply be adapted into a real product for a legacy media company. This is famously how Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s video Christmas card for a Hollywood executive became South Park, and now it’s how Morgan Cooper’s fake trailer for a dramatic reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has become an actual series, debuting this weekend on Peacock.
Cooper (no relation to Sarah) crafted his trailer based on a terribly clever hook, observing that the premise of Will Smith’s Nineties hit — a West Philly teen has to move in with his wealthy aunt and uncle to escape some trouble back in his old neighborhood — was arguably better fodder for a drama than a multicam sitcom. It’s not surprising that the video blew up so quickly, nor that Smith himself eventually got attached to this new version as one of many credited producers.
The thing about trailers, though, is that it’s easy to make an idea look exciting as a highlight reel, and far harder to make the thing that it’s promising be good. The reality of Bel-Air has its moments, especially whenever it stops trying to draw attention to the story’s sitcom roots. But once you take away the nostalgic link to a beloved series from decades past, the end result is just a decent approximation of a CW drama like All-American, which has a very similar culture-clash premise.
Cooper directs the premiere episode, and co-writes it with Bel-Air showrunners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson, plus Falcon and the Winter Soldier lead writer Malcolm Spellman. After a dream sequence meant to evoke the imagery of Will Smith on a throne from the sitcom’s opening credits, Team Bel-Air quickly moves to ground their story in a grittier reality. This new Will (newcomer Jabari Banks) wanders actual Philadelphia streets, uses the utilitarian Philly slang word “jawn” in every third sentence or so, has a great relationship with his mother April (Viola “Vy” Smith), and is a top student on the verge of getting a basketball scholarship offer from a good out-of-state school. Everything goes awry, though, when his stubborn pride leads him to challenge a local drug dealer to a pickup game that ends with our hero pinned to the asphalt by local cops and thrown in jail on a gun possession charge. April’s wealthy lawyer brother-in-law Phil (Adrian Holmes) calls in some favors to get the charges dropped, but with the drug dealer still looking for revenge, Will has no choice but to get out of town and move in with Uncle Phil, Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman), and his cousins Carlton (Olly Sholotan), Hilary (Coco Jones), and Ashley (Akira Akbar).
Upon arriving at his relatives’ palatial Bel-Air home, Will even quotes the Fresh Prince theme song at Aunt Viv, muttering, “Got in one little fight and my mom got scared.” But you can take the kid away from his jawn without taking the jawn out of the kid, and soon Will is running afoul of his new friends and family — most of all Carlton, who rightly fancies himself as royalty at the elite private school he and Will now attend together.
Stepping into Will Smith’s footsteps, even in a more dramatic context, is no easy task, but Jabari Banks acquits himself very well, popping off the screen in a way that supports Will’s stardom in his old neighborhood as well as his ability to win over so many people in the new one, despite the open hostility and scheming of Carlton. Cooper and his collaborators also find clever ways to reinvent the now-archetypal supporting players. This new Uncle Phil, for instance, is younger, cooler — he and Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), who is himself now called a house manager instead of a butler, hang out listening to A Tribe Called Quest on vinyl. Hilary is, of course, an influencer (in this case with cooking videos), but less self-involved than her sitcom predecessor, and Coco Jones adds some welcome lightness to what can otherwise be a dour show. Carlton hasn’t changed as much in the broad strokes from when Alfonso Ribeiro played him, but the new show takes his assimilationist qualities more seriously, and in a way that generates some genuine ongoing conflict with Will. It does not seem likely that we’ll see him dancing to Tom Jones songs anytime soon.
But as teen-oriented soaps go, Bel-Air is too often competent and not much more. And every Fresh Prince callback — say, a triumphant shot of Will realizing he can turn his school uniform blazer inside-out to show off the funky lining instead of its dull, mustard-stained exterior — only serves to break whatever level of reality Bel-Air has managed to create around these characters. Will’s friendship with ride-share driver Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) seems particularly distracting, since in the original show, Will and Jazz were presented as peers — and the character only existed as a nod to Will Smith’s musical partnership with the man playing him, DJ Jazzy Jeff — while here he’s a guy in his mid- to late-twenties who keeps hanging around with a high-school junior.
Peacock only gave critics the first three episodes for review, and the third is the best of them. Not coincidentally, it’s also the one that feels most like its own thing rather than a sometimes clumsy dramatic translation. Among other developments, we see Will figuring out how to translate his flamboyant game to suit a buttoned-down Bel-Air coach, and we learn a lot more about Uncle Phil’s campaign for L.A. district attorney and how he has, like Carlton, been accused of turning his back on his roots. (It also gives Adrian Holmes a chance to step with members of Phil’s college fraternity.)
On the whole though, Bel-Air doesn’t live up to the thrill of Cooper’s original trailer. It’s one thing to ask whether it would be great if the Fresh Prince premise was used in service of a grittier, more dramatic take on the story; it’s another to make that twist work over the long haul. Not every piece of IP needs to be dusted off and given a new coat of paint, even if it seems that way with the current state of pop culture.
The first three episodes of Bel-Air premiere Feb. 13 on Peacock, with additional episodes releasing weekly.