Bel-Air is Peacock’s one-hour drama series that re-imagines the beloved ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air through a modern, dramatic take on Will’s complicated journey from the streets of West Philadelphia to the gated mansions of Bel-Air.
Joining moderator Matt Grobar at Deadline’s Contenders Television at the Paramount Theatre to discuss the 10-episode drama series were series creator Morgan Cooper; co-showrunner Rasheed Newson; actor Jabari Banks, who plays Will; and actor Cassandra Freeman, who plays Aunt Viv.
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The series was not picked up in a typical fashion. Rather than an adaptation or reboot being tossed around in the offices of sunny Hollywood, Cooper made a viral trailer released on YouTube that caught the eyes of certain people, landing him a meeting with the star of the original sitcom: Will Smith.
“We’re driving down Highway 71 and this vision hit me to reimagine The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a modern drama, and I knew it was a special idea,” Cooper recalled. “I invested my money in a short film that I made called Bel-Air (watch it below), released on YouTube in March of 2019, and less than a day later Westbrook reached out and I was in Calabasas the next day face-timing with Will. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I pitched him my idea to reimagine this is as a one hour drama. Several years later, here we are.”
The creators of the show had a delicate balancing act with adapting the classic sitcom: respecting and being faithful to the source material and also forging a new legacy with their own creative vision.
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“Luckily we have a trailer from Morgan and we had the history of the show to draw on,” Newson said. “Everybody had the same reference point, and everybody on the show was a fan of the [original] Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. We all took a lot of care with this material, but we knew we had to do something new. We knew we had to take bold swings because you can’t match what they did 30 years ago. You’re not going to you’re not going to do it better than they did that. We had to sort of take that as inspiration, but go in a new direction. I think that that permeated every single department and it was sort of our mission statement.”
In whichever direction the adaptation took, the show had to star an actor who possessed a similar level of gravitas and explosion of character as Smith did with his portrayal in the 1990-96 original. The series found that with newcomer Banks, who explained that he resonated with the script.
“I read the script and I was like, ‘Oh, this has something to say,'” Banks said. “Initially the audition scene was a scene between me and Carlton [Olly Sholotan], where his friend had been saying the N-word. I knew that this was special. So I was excited to be a part of this.'”
Banks added that he also landed in LA from Philadelphia in a happenstance manner similar to Will’s origin story, adding to his connection to the character he plays.
“I was couch surfing in Philly at the time I had jumped out of school, and I was trying to figure everything out,” he explained. “I knew if I was going to come to L.A., then I had to have a reason to be here.”
Cooper spoke to the importance and difficulty of casting an iconic family and how Bel-Air had such a unique difficulty.
“I don’t know if anyone else had a tougher assignment this season because to cast an entire family in which the originals are beloved,” Newson said. “And to bring something new that was incredibly tight. I think we got it right across.”
Freeman, who plays the new Aunt Viv, conveyed the importance of the adaptation and how their reimagining of a Black family is important to see on television.
“We’re trying to show the world that it’s expansive to be black,” she said. “Black is not just Crenshaw [Boulevard]. Black’s not just from Baltimore. Black is an expansive experience. I hope people watch this show and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, Black people are like that. African-Americans like that. African Caribbean is like — oh, wait a minute, maybe all of us: Black, white, Latino, Asian. Maybe we are all expansive people. For me the show is just a microcosm of one family, an American family.”
With Bel-Air confirmed for a second season on Peacock, Newson teased a little on what to expect for the upcoming season return.
“The mission is the same,” he said. “This show is working on two levels. One: It is the coming-of-age story of Will, but it’s also the emotional evolution of the Black family. So that’s our kind of guiding light on those two fronts.”
All episodes of Bel-Air‘s first season are available for streaming on Peacock.
Check out the panel video above.
Deadline Contenders Television is sponsored by Apple TV+, Eyepetizer, Final Draft, Los Siete Misterios and Michter’s. Partners include Desalto, Film AlUla, Four Seasons Resort Maui, Jason Mizrahi Design, ModMD, The American Pavilion, and Tidelli.
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