SPOILER ALERT! Do not read unless you’ve watched the season finale of Bel-Air on Peacock.
It took a few seasons before fans met Will Smith’s dad Lou in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (played by Ben Vareen). But Peacock’s Bel-Air — like it’s already demonstrated in its first 10 episodes — is nothing like the ’90s sitcom that starred Will Smith in the title role.
In the season one finale of the drama, Marlon Wayans shows up as Lou, the long lost father of Will (Jabari Banks). Before his unexpected homecoming, Will was led to believe by his mom Vy (April Parker Jones) and Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) that Lou abandoned his family; in reality, Lou was serving time in prison and never wanted his son to see him behind bars.
Here, co-showrunners and executive producers T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson talk about the decision to introduce Will’s dad in the show’s first season (the show’s already been picked up for a second year), the trouble his sudden appearance brings to the family, and how the show’s liberal use of expletives and the N word make the drama “authentic.”*
DEADLINE Why introduce the dad so soon?
T.J. BRADY Bel-Air is complete reimagining of Fresh Prince and we wanted to upend expectations and not drag it out. Several times throughout the season, Will had made mention of not having a father, and growing up without a dad and how Uncle Phil fulfilled that role. Sometimes he said it to justify self-destructive behavior, other times to explain why he would keep a distance. We wanted to upend audience expectations by having him be challenged, having this man show up again in his life and discover that the story he had been told his whole life, that he had built an identify around, wasn’t true.
RASHEED NEWSON It had to be accelerated because this is one of the things that comes with taking a sitcom and turning it into a drama. In a sitcom you can gloss over the fact that Will was meeting his rich relations that he hadn’t seen in years. In this one, you have to explain why there was this rift in the family. It’s a natural question, those stories have to come out. When Will was 4, his dad was convicted of a violent crime and he was sentenced to prison, and he told Will’s mother and Uncle Phil, ‘don’t bring my son down here. If you bring him down here I won’t come out to see him. I don’t want him to see me like this. I grew up seeing my dad in prison and I think it messed me up and I don’t want to do that to my son.’ Uncle Phil and Will’s mother weren’t able to tell a 4-year-old your dad is in prison and doesn’t want to see you anymore so they let him think his father had walked out. That’s what they are reckoning with it now because his dad is at the doorstep.
T.J. BRADY That’s the part that anyone would have a difficult time with. When do we tell him the truth? Maybe there won’t be a reason to tell him. One day when he’s grown up maybe he’ll be able to handle it. Seventeen is right on the cusp of youth and adulthood. That was the line they walked and it comes back to create some conflict in the finale.
NEWSON We are trying to put something together that seems understandable from all sides. I don’t think they fully understand the damage they did to Will. In the last two episodes, Will asked if his father was still alive. He’s been carrying around this idea that he’s been dead.
BRADY One of the deeper things we are trying to explore with all the characters is one of identity, and how identity is developed and defined and how it can change. Will had molded his identity, especially in Philadelphia, largely around how he had to step up to fill a role for his mom because his dad was not there and they didn’t need him.
DEADLINE But the whole reunion blew up.
NEWSON Will walks out and leaves the mansion. Lou can’t accept responsibility for his part in it. He wants to blame a lot of people, and when he starts to bad mouth Will’s mom, that leads to a huge argument. Will won’t stand for it.
DEADLINE How did you land on Marlon Wayans?
NEWSON We knew he would be good but also surprising. There are a lot of people who were the obvious candidates. But we wanted somebody that the audience would react like ‘Okay, wait a minute.’ We wanted it to feel fresh. We didn’t want it to feel like anyone was reprising a role they had done on another series that was too similar.
DEADLINE Is Wayans coming back for season 2?
BRADY I don’t know if he will be a regular but we hope to see him again.
NEWSON The way it ended, Will and Lou are miles apart. They really do go at it. But in the life of Will, his father has to come back, but he’s not going to be living in L.A. and someone you see on a regular basis.
DEADLINE What do you consider the demographic for this show?
NEWSON What’s interesting is that the specificity of the language and the issues are African American but the larger stories are universal. It’s a family story. We decided the grownups were going to have real meaty stories that didn’t always involved how to deal with the children. Because if you look at the original Fresh Prince audience, they are my age now. They were parents, married. This show could not survive if it was just going to be about the love lives of 16 year olds. We built something out so people who are middle aged have something to relate to.
DEADLINE The show, and the finale in particular, uses the N word a lot. What kind of discussions have you had about that?
NEWSON I can tell you in the pilot we counted the use of the N word and cut it back. It is a balance of being authentic and also knowing you are turning a lot of people off every time you use that word. The rule that emerged is that it can come up in times of emphasis, in anger, but it couldn’t be like, ‘hey, N word.’ You couldn’t enter a room that way. There are a lot of African Americans working on this show and there are a lot of opinions among us. I know we started off using it more and it tapered off as we went. It’s the same way with expletives. We were probably looser with them at the beginning of the season and we began to pull back as we go. That’s the show finding itself. You are probably not going to hear Uncle Phil say it. But if you are dealing with a drug dealer in west Philadelphia, you are probably going to hear that word. I don’t necessarily want to hear Carlton say it as he’s saying good morning to Will. But if Will is furious at Carlton, that word might come out. As a lot of things on this show, it became a conversation that we had to have early to just make sure we were being intentional about what we were doing.
*This interview was conducted before Sunday’s Oscars.
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