Yo, holmes, back to Bel-Air! Inside the ambitious mission to reimagine Fresh Prince
Now this is a story all about how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air got flipped, turned upside down.
In 2019, Kansas City filmmaker Morgan Cooper set YouTube ablaze with "Bel-Air," a four-minute trailer imagining what the iconic '90s sitcom would be like set in the present. "It's such a good idea, you wish you'd had it," says veteran TV writer Rasheed Newson with a laugh. The gritty, realistic vision immediately caught the eye of the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith. Just one day after the video dropped, Smith summoned Cooper for a meeting that eventually led to a new Peacock series, simply titled Bel-Air (premiering Feb. 13 — a.k.a. Super Bowl Sunday — with weekly rollout).
"They're two different takes on these characters," shares Cooper — a director and executive producer on Bel-Air — of how his project varies from the OG that inspired it. "You can't make The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air again. What they did is beyond words. It's so legendary [that] you would never try."
Bel-Air will be a different take, perhaps, but the one-hour drama does keep the original premise: Troubled Philadelphia teen Will is sent to California to live with his wealthy relatives, the Banks family. (No word yet on this Carlton's affinity for Tom Jones). After struggling through a few iterations in search of the right tone, the creative team — including co-showrunners Newson and T.J. Brady — landed on "showing the full spectrum of the Black experience in America, and not saying one is more authentic than the other," explains Brady.
"You can have this Black family that has struggles, but you never doubt that they love each other — and that there can be conflict that's organic without being too sensational or dark," adds Newson. "We're speaking to the moment now, much like the original series did. Young audiences will see in Will and Carlton and Hilary reflections of some of their own clashes with their parents. Each generation has to rewrite the rules."
Though there was debate over the tone, everyone agrees that the most crucial element was finding the new Will. And somehow they discovered him in the perfect place, and with the perfect last name. "I remember watching The Fresh Prince and realizing what TV was for the first time. Like, 'Oh, this is entertainment!' " recalls Philadelphia native Jabari Banks, who, in addition to having a copy of Smith's new memoir within arm's reach during this Zoom interview, says he repeatedly watched — and often falls asleep to — last year's Fresh Prince reunion during the casting process, which included 10 auditions. "The show molded me. And growing up, people always told me I resembled Will and his energy... When I got the call, they said, 'This isn't Will Smith, superstar.' They weren't going for that. And so when they chose me, it took me a couple of weeks to realize that they chose me for me — for what I do."
Like Smith before him, Banks comes in with minimal professional acting experience, having booked the role fresh out of theater school. That initially prompted conversations about whether such a high-profile property should be put on the shoulders of a newcomer — but Banks couldn't be denied.
"His charisma and his spark just radiated off of him," Brady says. "Upon viewing the first cut of the pilot, every single person has said, 'You guys found a star.'"
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.
- Oscar Isaac considered quitting acting before The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
- Ariana tells Raquel to 'go f--- yourself with a cheese grater' in Vanderpump Rules reunion clip
- Based on a True Story stars Chris Messina, Kaley Cuoco talk murder, marriage, and the appeal of true crime
- Nicolas Cage is Joel Kinnaman's passenger from hell in Sympathy for the Devil trailer