Will Smith (Jabari Banks) leads a happy life in Philadelphia. He’s a basketball star at school and, though his single mom Vy (April Parker Jones) wants him to spread his wings, Will can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. However, after a run-in with the law, Vy sends Will to live with his wealthy relatives – Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes), Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman), and cousins Carlton (Olly Sholotan), Hilary (Coco Jones) and Ashley (Akira Akbar) – in Bel-Air.
Unlike its predecessor ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’, this dramatic remake of the series that launched Will Smith to fame, takes its time in establishing the protagonist’s beloved Philly roots. It’s a touching set-up, but like his predecessor, this new Will suffers from being too proud. He allows a local thug to talk him into something he shouldn’t do, all for the sake of maintaining “street cred”.
Still, Jabari Banks distinguishes himself from Will Smith, never trying to mimic the ‘Fresh Prince’ star but imbuing his own charm to the role. His is also a somewhat immature and occasionally naïve Will, but he’s impressive, creative, sharp, and amicable. He comes against his match as immediate competition arises between him and Carlton, who delights in showing off his status in school, but has problems all his own.
In other supports, the audience is quickly introduced to Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) as a hustling taxi driver who makes fast friends with Will – and is, to the viewer’s relief, far less cartoonish than his characterisation in ‘Fresh Prince’. Aside from Carlton, Jeffrey and Phillip Banks are also immediately disapproving of Will, but there’s some added depth to Phil as he reluctantly shows he cares. He is a man trying to rise through politics, to make a difference and to be more than just his money.
Less interesting are Hillary’s struggles as a drop-out turned influencer chef, and her mother who wants her to be more. Determined to stay a drama and shirk off its comedy roots, the series dives deeper into the race, class and mental health issues already touched on in ‘Fresh Prince’. What ‘Bel-Air’ maintains is a sense of familiarity and nostalgia for what came before it – while also giving the audience anticipation as they don’t quite know what direction it’ll take next.
At the core of ‘Bel-Air’ is that sweet, timeless message about being your authentic self, because that’s what people respond to. The series can feel rushed and doesn’t always get it right, but armed with style, energy, and intriguing characterisation, there’s much to admire in ‘Bel-Air’, as far as TV remakes go.
You can watch 'Bel-Air' on NOW or Sky in Ireland and the UK.