In 2019, filmmaker Morgan Cooper released a concept trailer for an interesting idea: what if The fresh prince of Bel-Air, the beloved 90s sitcom that launched Will Smith’s acting career, was retold as a dramatic story? The video went viral, Smith himself noticed it and teamed up with Cooper, and now, about two and a half years later, the teaser trailer was for the official spin-off, Bel-Air, has been released.
The early glimpse of the show, which comes sometime in 2022, is still vague, but has Smith himself as the narrator, slowly and seriously reciting the lyrics from the show’s iconic, battered theme song. Meanwhile, the new Will (Jabari Banks) reaches out for his crown and a throne, a recall to the show’s opening montage, only in this case he is underwater – thrown into a new world over his head. There’s not much to pick from the short teaser beyond this, but it looks like the spin-off will stick to the original script – it’s the same tale of a child from West Philadelphia, caught in trouble and sent to a mansion in LA, but filtered through a heavier tone and more cruel voice.
But while the new show may be performing the spinoff’s seemingly new concept well enough, it’s version of Fresh Prince already exists – the original show offered everything one could wish for out of a “dramatic” retelling and more. Beyond how amazingly funny the cast and characters in the original were – at its core, Smith’s charisma lifted the comedy in the show, and when you look at any scene, you can see that it was a matter of course that he would continue to be a megastar – the show was often amplified and is most admirable for the serious moments and thorny topics that often popped up, especially early on, and always landed like stomach aches.
The most prominent example, of course, is Smith’s heartbreaking “why does he not want me” scene in what is easily the series’ most famous dramatic episode about Will’s alienated father. But what makes the notion of a dramatic retelling interesting, and what the more solemn spin-off is likely to explore, is the friction in the show’s culture shock premises – how Will walks the streets of West Philadelphia to the manicured lawns of Bel-Air creates a tensions in themselves and around notions of class and black identity. Still, a reunion with one of the early episodes of the first season yields a wealth of gracefully written and played episodes already centered around precisely these themes – the ones that often ended with a strikingly dramatic catharsis at the end.
The pilot alone serves as a brief example when the end of the episode features a poignant altercation between Uncle Phil, who mocks his nephew for wasting their good favors and legitimate concern for Will’s well-being, and Will, who mocks his family’s bourgeois front and essentially questions his uncle’s blackness. This idea is actually partially revisited three episodes later when Uncle Phil’s mother comes to visit and he is forced to reckon with the dramatic class differences between his upbringing and his now life in sterling silver.
In the fifth episode, guest actor Don Cheadle as Will’s childhood friend visits from West Philadelphia, and the cultural clash he sees in Will comes to mind in a touching conversation with Aunt Vivian at the end of the episode about how the less fortunate – those who can not afford to be sent to Bel-Air – be left behind. The following episode is perhaps the most complex and remarkable moment in the entire show, centered around an example of racial profiling that both reproduces the sharp gap between Will and Carlton’s distinct understanding of the world as black men – and yet removes the illusion that “System” , which Carlton so firmly believes will treat him differently.
This is all to say that fans of Fresh Prince who might be looking for a new in-depth bid on the hilarious original will likely be treated to a subordinate version of what was already in the show and did it brilliantly in the first place. Even worse is that with Smith’s production company, who are shepherds for the project, and the actor is now embedded in what from an artistic point of view is his flat and bland inspiring guru career phase, this new show’s biggest threat is to move in. in the harsh, clumsy territory in the middle of via its so-called serious tone.
What actually made the show amazing was that it quietly stepped into tragic truths through the veneer of its silly prince – and after it did, it would let you sit with it all in a moment of silence, traces of laughter absent. It happens at the end of the episode of race profiling, where Carlton is left sitting still on the couch alone, confronted with how naively he has come to see the world and how he has thought the world sees him.
And it happens at the end of the pilot episode, when Uncle Phil, after lecturing Will for his unfair assumptions, gets the last word and leaves the room. Will then pulls his feet towards the nearby piano and begins to complain lamentingly out of Beethoven, while his uncle looks wordless in the distance, suddenly amazed and chuckles over his own misjudgments. It is these moments which, within the framework of a scene, immediately reproduce the idea of Bel-Air a futile exercise – you can not do it better than how it has already been done.
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