‘Bel-Air’ Aims To Make ‘The Fresh Prince’ Legacy Proud – Set Visit
Like many, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is one of my favorite shows of all time. My favorite TV watching experience during the 2020 COVID shutdown was revisiting the original series with my mother. We actually finished our binge the day before the 30th anniversary cast reunion episode aired. And even after six long seasons, my Fresh Prince appetite still craved more. So when Peacock announced the new Bel-Air series, my eyebrows raised.
Bel-Air is a contemporary dramatic reimagining of the beloved and culture-defining 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The series is based on Morgan Cooper’s viral fan film Bel-Air, which dropped in 2019 and lit the internet on fire. Will got on the phone with Morgan immediately and helped embolden this grounded new vision of the classic TV show.
When this series was announced, I – like many others – worried if this reboot would work. Thankfully, Bel-Air actually successes dive deeper into the inherent conflicts, emotions, and social commentary that would’ve been impossible to explore in a 30-minute sitcom format. The series offers something new and engrossing while still delivering swagger and easter eggs to the original show. I actually had a chance to visit the set of Bel-Air and speak with the cast and crew.
With a story so centered around family, the chemistry of the cast is what’s going to make or break a show. As they were filming season one, the on-set family grew closer and more comfortable with each other. Rising musician Coco Jones – the actress who plays the new Hilary Banks – was enthusiastic about the vibe on set.
“It is so inspiring to see all these talented ass Black people. I remember [when] Jabari sat on that piano and started to play?? I was like ‘ You’re not about to come here and be this talented,’” Jones said.
I asked the show’s new breakout star Jabari Banks what elements he thinks the audience should look forward to in this new iteration.
“Two things. The fashion. We’re doing a lot of recognizable stuff. And I’m also looking forward to Geoffrey’s character and to go in-depth with him,” Banks said.
Having Geoffrey play a butler to a Black family doesn’t really play that well in 2022, so Bel Air makes the British character more of a remarkably handsome lieutenant to General Philip Banks. Actor Jimmy Akingbola said he was excited to add some Top Boy swagger to Geoffrey. “If you watch the original Fresh Prince, you kind of get the impression that all British people talk like the Queen,” Akingbola said. Joseph Marcell, the actor who portrayed the original Geoffrey, actually plays Akingbola’s father in an episode of the UK comedy crime series Death in Paradise. But he’s not the only character that endures a wild transformation.
Seeing how different the Banks family looked in this series was one of the most shocking discoveries. Uncle Phil is no longer a heavyweight boomer; he’s a physically fit, new age judge committed to social justice. Carlton isn’t the clean-cut high school nerd you might remember. Will’s best friend Jazzy Jeff is an Uber driver who picks up Will from the airport. Hilary is now a social media chef/influencer instead of her traditional airhead persona. And Aunt Viv also takes on a fascinating alteration as a thriving art collector.
Much of Vivian’s art actually comes from showrunner Rasheed Newson’s personal collection. The show’s creator Morgan Cooper, a music head himself, assembled a 50-song playlist for each actor to get them inside the minds of their characters. The whole cast expressed how helpful these playlists were.
With the reinvention of the Banks family, the series takes a lot of risks to create layered, complex human characters. While the original Fresh Prince was a star vehicle for actor/rapper Will Smith, Bel Air is much more of an ensemble akin to Friday Night Lights – an influence that the showrunners noted. However, while the show is a dramatic reimagining, there are plenty of comedic moments to behold.
Director Morgan Cooper emphasized the right amount of levity can help make the drama more relatable. Plus the crew encouraged a more open-minded approach to improvisation, allowing the actors more creative freedom. Actor Jordan L. Jones recounted a hilarious moment of improv when he drops off Will at his Bel Air mansion.
“We were supposed to just walk out of the car… But on the second take, I walked up and said, ‘I didn’t know your parents were white, nigga!’ That was the point that I felt like I can be me,” Jones shared.
Cooper was excited about the opportunity to work with inexperienced talent in the pursuit of a raw, more authentic series. Authenticity remained at the core of the production through and through. From filming on location to hiring fresh-faced actors and the highly detailed soundtrack. The hair and makeup team committed to employing Black barbers and hairstylists – a rarity for many major productions.
Everything in Bel-Air serves to add a new edge to The Fresh Prince legacy while maintaining the heart, spirit, and family love that the original series brought to the small screen.