Very few TV shows enjoy the level of untouchable nostalgia that surrounds The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. While it only arrived on a streaming platform for the first time this year, nearly everything about the Nineties sitcom — from its theme song to Will Smith’s Air Jordan rotation — was already thriving in the collective consciousness. Then, on August 11th, multiple outlets reported that Smith would helm a reboot of the series, with various companies stated to be in the midst of a bidding war for the rights to air it. Based on a viral trailer directed by Morgan Cooper in 2019, Bel-Air is a “dramatic take … [that] will dive deeper into the inherent conflicts, emotions and biases of what it means to be a Black man in America today,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Does anyone actually need this? It’s easy to see why the idea might appeal to a studio or a streaming company. In 2020, reviving a well-established piece of intellectual property with a slight twist is seen as a sure bet. That’s why the list of reboots, reunions, and reimaginings that have been either rumored or already produced in recent years is so depressingly long — from Saved by the Bell to Perry Mason, Beavis and Butt-Head to Animaniacs, Punky Brewster to Clueless. Creating something new is a risk; reviving something with a built-in fan base is less so, or so the thinking seems to go.
But there’s a more desperate undertone to the prospect of Bel-Air becoming a reality. Reinventing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a realistic, gritty drama not only suggests that merely existing as a beloved sitcom is no longer enough — it also fails to acknowledge that the show was always part drama operating within the structure of a family-friendly sitcom.
Fresh Prince thrived during a boom time for black television. In the Nineties, your average black sitcom (Martin, A Different World, The Jamie Foxx Show) was concerned with blue-collar anxieties or the mundane reality of a middle-class existence. These shows were colorful and jagged disrupters at a time when network TV advertisers had finally realized that black people had disposable income like their white peers. One crucial outcome of having so many black shows to choose from is that very few of those shows had to build their runs around justifying a singular vision of blackness. Instead, they gave a new generation of characters the chance to occupy a space where their trauma was often implicit, but not the first or even most important trait about them. (Kenan & Kel, to take just one example, would have been a lot less funny if it included a crushing season-long arc about the ways multinational soft-drink companies market to black communities.)
Many of the most remembered and critically adored moments from the original Fresh Prince — Will and Carlton getting racially profiled by the police, Carlton overdosing on amphetamines, Will getting shot — were also the most intense. Will’s tearful monologue about his in-show father abandoning him in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” was so effective that fans believed Smith’s real dad was a deadbeat. Part of what made Will defiantly sobbing on Uncle Phil’s shoulder so visceral was the way that scene played against the context of those two characters roasting each other season after season. The comedy that defined The Fresh Prince made its moments of drama more real, and those moments of drama made the jokes around them funnier. All of it was rooted in Smith’s preternatural ability to inspire intense joy and deep pain in his audience. As his subsequent career has shown, we’re as eager to believe he can save the world from fast-talking aliens as we are to see him embody the greatest boxer of all time.
Smith’s Fresh Prince reboot comes as TV is in the middle of another black prestige boom. Shows either about or created by black people (Atlanta, Insecure, Black-ish, I May Destroy You, Watchmen) are at the center of the critical conversation. Many viewers didn’t know they wanted “Woke Watchmen” or “Twin Peaks: The Atlanta Years” until they were here and widely celebrated. Aesthetically and narratively, Cooper’s original Bel-Air trailer is awash in the signifiers of these more original shows. There’s the muted color palette, the ominous music, the dramatic cuts — all meant to signal serious subject matter. And now, instead of Will’s trauma being one sliver of his personality, it’s the driving force. Learning about his troubled backstory in a catchy theme song isn’t enough in 2020. Now, we must slog through the realization that Dark Will was hiding a gun and got arrested by the police, not just spun around one too many times by neighborhood bullies.
Last year, Smith spent a day with Cooper and openly gushed about the possibilities of Bel-Air on his YouTube channel. “As funny as the episodes are, there was a whole other layer that you couldn’t do,” Smith said. “In a one-hour drama, you can do eight-episode arcs. The dramatic version of these ideas means that you can use existing storylines, but it’s not going to seem like you’re redoing an episode because the storyline is going to be brand-new from the dramatic perspective.”
But Smith is undercutting the value of his old show, which already had layers of tension and complexity in its best episodes. The original Fresh Prince wasn’t perfect. During those early seasons, Smith was still finding his footing as an actor, and the respectability politics were rampant. Nevertheless, Fresh Prince at its best synthesized a moment when black people were commercially dominating TV, movies, music, and sports. Will Smith proved that a rapper could not only transition to the rigors of a half-hour network comedy, but also work his way toward becoming one of the most successful actors of his generation. And it’s all available to stream on HBO Max. The world doesn’t need a new Fresh Prince — just spend a little more time with the old one.