Warning: This post contains spoilers for episodes of “Bel-Air.”
Between 1990 and 1996, the NBC series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” lodged itself into the cultural consciousness with an all-Black cast, sharp wit and a particularly catchy theme song.
Fans of “Fresh Prince” can likely easily remember the clunky jingle of coins that kicked off each episode, or the way star Will Smith confidently spun around in a gravity-defying chair. They can recall Will’s mother in her horned glasses and curlers, shaking her finger. And most importantly, they know the exact emphases that punctuated the song's opening line: “In West Philadelphia born-and-raised...”
Twenty-six years later, a reimagining of the original sitcom, called “Bel-Air,” is striking an entirely different tone.
A drama at heart, "Bel-Air" shakes off the over-the-top comedy of its predecessor. "Bel-Air" takes familiar aspects from the original series and filters them through a more serious lens.
Take the backstory the theme song alluded to, as an example. When envisioning "Bel-Air," show-runners and longtime creative partners Rasheed Newson and TJ Brady took the lyrics and considered them from a different viewpoint. What really happened to Will that forced him away from Philadelphia to "move in with (his) auntie and uncle in Bel-Air?"
“We all could sing the opening title, and it would tell us about one little fight. You go, ‘Well, what kind of fight prompts the mother to fly her son, her only son, across the country to go live with relatives he hasn’t seen in years?' The story started to build itself once you sort of looked at (the song) again and took it seriously,” Newson tells TODAY.
Both writers grew up watching “Fresh Prince” back when new episodes were on the air. This was before the age of streamers and DVRs, when commercial breaks felt heaven-sent, bestowed upon viewers whenever a nagging parent demanded that they set the table or fold the laundry.
“It was appointment viewing,” Newson says. “If you missed it, you missed it.”
"The story started to build itself once you sort of looked at (the song) again and took it seriously."
With its first episode airing in the fall of 1990 on NBC, “Fresh Prince” premiered at a time now considered to be the golden age of African American comedy television. Back in the early '90s, audiences had their pick of a wide range of hit sitcoms starring Black casts including “Living Single,” “Family Matters,” and “Martin.”
A cultural phenomenon, "The Fresh Prince" reached 13.9 million homes in its second season, even flying above the prime-time ratings of shows like “Seinfeld” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Years later, despite our modern era of flash-in-the-pan trends, the series is still instantly recognizable — and reliably memeable.
With such a legacy looming over the project, Newson and Brady set out to reimagine "The Fresh Prince" with reverence. “When we went into this, I was like everyone else. I didn’t want to do anything that would tarnish that legacy or quite frankly, embarrass us,” Newson told TODAY.
Ahead of "Bel-Air's" March 31 finale, we're reflecting on the most significant difference between "Bel-Air" and "The Fresh Prince," and the one that is inspiring the most conversation: The series' completely reimagined characters.
The best part of 'Bel-Air’s' more serious tone? It makes pace for more dimensional characters, starting with the women
When Will arrives at his new home, a California mansion situated atop a high hill, he meets a 2022 version of the Banks family — and so do audiences. In "Bel-Air," the women of the series are given refreshingly remixed storylines.
In the ‘90s, Aunt Viv (played then by Janet Hubert and later Daphne Maxwell Reid) is an English professor. Here, Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) is an art history professor who set her artistic ambitions aside in order to raise her family while her husband pursued a political career. Toward the end of “Bel-Air’s” first season, Aunt Viv picks up her paintbrush again.
Then there’s her eldest daughter, Hilary. Not quite as self-absorbed and aloof as the Hilary (Karyn Parsons) of the ‘90s, the Hilary Banks of “Bel-Air” (Coco Jones) is a go-getter who welcomes Will to her home with nary a hair flip.
Hilary still has style — and of course, moments of selfishness — but her self-serving choices are much more about her professional culinary pursuits and branding acumen.
She is also romantically interested in Jazz (played by Jordan L. Jones), a character worlds away from the jester he was in the ‘90s series. Will’s best friend in Los Angeles, Jazz of “Bel-Air” is a business entrepreneur and DJ who runs his uncle’s record store, working nights and weekends to get by. Whereas Hilary of “The Fresh Prince” may have been put off by Jazz’s many efforts to earn a living, Jazz’s hustle is precisely what gains new Hilary’s respect.
Ashley (Akira Akbar), the Banks' youngest child, is on a journey of her own, kept hidden from her family. Beyond showing interest in political and global issues, she’s also coming to terms with her own sexual orientation, which boy-crazy Ashley of the ‘90s never did.
Struggling with her feelings, Ashley opts to keep her emotions private as she figures things out. Secrecy appears to be a family trait that extends beyond Ashley, however.
For fans of the original series, there was, perhaps, no greater shock in "Bel-Air" than meeting the "new Carlton."
Whereas Carlton of the original series (Alfonso Ribeiro) was a lovable dork, “Bel-Air’s” version of the character (played by Olly Sholotan) is sometimes framed as the villain of the series. To make the Carlton of “Bel-Air,” the ‘90s character’s darker traits — his anxiety, uptightness, and exaggerated sense of self— have been emphasized and exaggerated.
Brooding at every turn, new Carlton skulks the halls of his family mansion, snorts Xanax to cope with his anxiety, and consistently manipulates his ex-girlfriend Lisa (played by Simone Joy Jones in “Bel-Air”). He has no qualms about flexing the privilege his parents’ wealth affords him or taking jabs at his cousin’s Philadelphia roots in front of his classmates.
And he doesn’t even mention liking Tom Jones!
To be fair, as Brady pointed out to TODAY, the likability (or lack thereof) of Carlton 2.0 is completely deliberate. New Carlton is being measured against the goody-two-shoes nature of old Carlton, who’d never put anything up his nose. Any change from the original Carlton’s behavior might seem surprising for longtime fans of the show.
"The enemy of us as storytellers is apathy. So we’re just trying to make people feel something and react to it and get engaged.”
“All of that is intentional,” Brady tells TODAY. “If people are talking about it or feeling any emotion at all, we feel like we’re doing our job right, whether it’s anger or joy or anything. The enemy of us as storytellers is apathy. So we’re just trying to make people feel something and react to it and get engaged.”
The differences between the old and new Carlton are, indeed, sparking conversation, as the show-runners intended. Through Sholotan's portrayal of Carlton, viewers can reconsider Ribeiro's Carlton, and all that was unsaid in that performance.
“Carlton struggled with high anxiety and feeling different from other Black kids. This was always front and center," Dr. Jenn M. Jackson noted in a Twitter thread about the original series.
Through Will, the series tackles race in ways 'Fresh Prince' couldn’t always do in the '90s
For much of its run, “Fresh Prince” commented on pressing racial issues through a comedic lens, often crossing into the uncomfortable, sometimes life-threatening factors that come with being Black.
Take, for instance, season one, episode six of “Fresh Prince” called “Mistaken Identity,” in which Will and Carlton are put in jail for a few hours after being racially profiled. The next episode, which sees Will learn to write poetry for a girl, doesn’t linger on the arrest, however.
In this new series, however, Will continues to recall the white police officers with guns in the pilot episode. The PTSD Will suffers from this is triggered in various episodes; simply the sight of a police uniform sends him reeling to the past. In these moments, Will’s eyes widen from the shock of being so close to death in the first episode and slammed to the ground by the police.
Through Will especially, “Bel-Air” works to address the experience of Black mental health and the trauma of witnessing, or being a victim of, police brutality.
Microaggressions and more overt acts of racism are peppered heavily through “Bel-Air,” too. In the second episode of the series, a white student named Conner targets Will after the latter confronts him for using the N-word and then later punches him for being racist. As retaliation, Conner plants drugs in Will’s backpack, resulting in Will’s suspension from school.
Later, in episode seven, Conner targets Will again and calls the police to send officers to the Banks family mansion. The episode — in which Carlton is handcuffed after police disregard his claims that he lives in the mansion — undoubtedly echoes the racially motivated emergency calls that can lead to violence.
Of course, many other aspects of ‘Bel-Air’ have been ‘flipped-turned upside down,’ too
“Bel-Air’s” efforts to highlight what it means to be Black in America in 2022 means that the series wholeheartedly dives into concepts only touched on in the sitcom of yore.
Based on its first season’s themes, audiences can likely expect continued conversations around Blackness, family, sexuality, gun and gang violence, the role that Black women play in America, and so much more, in the show’s already confirmed second season.
Bel-Air is currently available to stream on Peacock. Peacock is part of our parent company, NBCUniversal.
CORRECTION (March 23, 2022 at 8:52 p.m. ET): The article was updated to correctly identify Rasheed Newson and TJ Brady.