Fresh drama

Fresh drama

By Michael Pickard
February 11, 2022


Will Smith’s iconic 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gets a dramatic makeover in Peacock series Bel-Air. Showrunners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson reveal how the story got flipped-turned upside down.

For six seasons in the 1990s, Will Smith ruled television as the title character in his now iconic sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With a ridiculously catchy theme tune that set up the premise of the series, it followed Will Smith – played by Smith – a street smart teenager who becomes caught up with local gangsters after a basketball match goes wrong.

This causes his mother to send him from his home in West Philadelphia to Bel-Air, the wealthy suburb of LA, to live with the Banks family – his uncle Phil, aunt Vivian and his cousins Hilary, Carlton and Ashley.

Rasheed Newson and TJ Brady

The comedy turned Smith, the actor, into a global star as the show found audiences around the world. Now, more than 30 years since he first landed on television screens, the Fresh Prince is back for a new series, titled Bel-Air. But this isn’t the show many fans will recognise from their own childhoods.

Instead, Bel-Air is a wildly dramatic take on the original show’s sitcom stylings, presenting a very different account of Will’s troubles at home and the world that awaits him in California. Set in the present day, it follows Will (played by newcomer Jabari Banks) as his two worlds collide, offering him a second chance at life among the gated mansions of Bel-Air as he deals with the conflicts, emotions and biases of a place that is the polar opposite of anything he’s ever known.

While rumours of remakes or reboots have surrounded The Fresh Prince like any other hit TV show that’s a long time off air, it wasn’t until writer and director Morgan Cooper’s 2019 short film Bel-Air – a dark, gritty and dramatic reimagining of the sitcom – went viral that a new series inspired by Cooper’s film went into development. Smith is an executive producer, while Cooper is the director.

Leading the project are first-time showrunners and long-time writing partners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson. The pair took charge after some creative changes at the top of the series, which US streamer Peacock secured following an intense bidding war.

Speaking to DQ as shooting continues on the season one finale, they describe Bel-Air as a story grounded in the reality of its premise, focusing on the impact Will’s move to LA has not only on him but on those around him, and those he leaves behind in Philadelphia.

Jabari Banks had just left theatre school when he won the role of Will

“Parents don’t just put their kids on a plane for small reasons,” says Brady, noting that the series explores the danger Will finds himself in after a basketball game against a local gangster leads him to pull a gun on the most dangerous man in the neighbourhood. His mother then puts him straight on a plane, rightly fearing her son’s life is under threat.

“But there was also a family dynamic that’s inherent in the premise they don’t really explore in the comedy because they’re just trying to get laughs,” Newson says. “Will has been growing up in a poor neighbourhood in West Philadelphia while he had these rich relatives in Bel-Air and there seemed to be no connection. In our eyes, we’re trying to talk about why there was 10 years between seeing these rich relations. Then it opens up a world of family secrets and it gave us somewhere to go for the first season.”

Despite its dramatic makeover, Will and the show both keep their senses of humour as the showrunners were adamant that viewers wouldn’t want to watch a humourless take on the original series.

“To adapt and survive while making that transition from West Philadelphia to the richest one percent of the richest one percent zip code in America, there’s no way Will can navigate that successfully without a sense of humour,” Brady says. “We’re lucky in the sense that we cast an actor who can bring both the incredible drama of the situation, but also deal with it with some swagger and humour that makes him relatable and really entertaining to watch.”

Will’s journey to Bel-Air takes place within just the opening act as the story quickly settles him in his new surroundings, causing him to interrupt the already complicated lives of his wealthy relatives. Although the story won’t send him home, that doesn’t mean figures from his past have been completely left behind.

Adrian Holmes plays Will’s uncle Phil

“We wanted to essentially shoot him out of a cannon,” Newson says of the decision to shift the story to Bel-Air as soon as possible. “There’s a scene [in episode one] when he’s in the car with his mother and it’s like, ‘You don’t even get to go home, you don’t get to say goodbye, you are going directly to the airport.’ We wanted to keep that kind of propulsion, and it was the same thing when he got to Bel-Air.

“Then a lot of what we did in the beginning was saying, ‘You know what? The story for the Banks family doesn’t begin when he comes to the door, so where were they and what have they been doing in the weeks and months before his arrival? And how does he disrupt that?’”

As the title suggests, Bel-Air isn’t just about one character. Uncle Phil is running for office as district attorney, putting him into conflict with political rivals and potential backers as the reason for Will’s presence threatens to derail his campaign. Meanwhile, Aunt Viv is an artist and Hilary is a social media star, while Will and Carlton immediately clash over issues of class, race, privilege and romance.

“When you walk in and Carlton is blowing lines [snorting cocaine] in his closet, that announces right then and there that this is very different,” Brady notes. “One of the biggest differences is every single one of those characters does have their own story throughout the season. They do more than just serve the story of the lead.”

Produced by Universal Television and Westbrook Studios, part of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s media company Westbrook Inc, the original Fresh Prince himself has been a constant support on the series, offering guidance on the story and in casting, where he helped to find the person who would play the role that first made him famous.

Cassandra Freeman as Will’s aunt Vivian

“At first, you’re just sort of in awe, right? Because everything, especially when we’re doing casting, that has to go through Will,” Newson says. “When you’re sitting there trying to cast someone to play the role that made him famous, and a role that is incredibly close to his heart, you just don’t want to be wrong. Luckily, he did agree with our choice and so that’s been very smooth. He’s been great and incredibly supportive.”

Led by Banks, the cast includes Adrian Holmes as Phil, Cassandra Freeman as Vivian, Olly Sholotan as Carlton, Coco Jones as Hilary, Akira Akbar as Ashley, Jimmy Akingbola as the Banks’ house manager Geoffrey, Jordan L Jones as Jazz and Simone Joy Jones as Lisa.

To find the new Will, the net was cast far and wide as the production sought an unknown actor. The search was led by casting director Victoria Thomas (The Morning Show, Watchmen), who worked her way through thousands of submissions and very early on highlighted Banks as a standout candidate.

“So he made the next cut but we were looking at it and it was still very overwhelming,” Brady recalls of the casting process. “We were doing a location scout for filming and she said, ‘While you’re in Philadelphia, just do me a favour, meet with Jabari Banks.’ He had just graduated theatre school there and when we met him, that is when he rose to the very top of the pile. Every single audition, every chemistry read, every call-back, he just upped his game until finally he was the clear choice.”

Newson admits casting Bel-Air was “tough,” mostly because viewers will still fondly remember the original show’s actors and naturally compare the two line-ups.

Interiors shooting was complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic

“You’re trying to find something that resonates as familiar but isn’t a copy,” he explains. “It’s a very thin line to walk. I’m really proud of Jabari but I’m really proud we put this whole family together and they look like a family, and you believe these relationships when you see them. It was a lot of sleepless nights because you don’t want to get this wrong and you only get one choice. You don’t want to be standing there the third day of the pilot going, ‘I think we got the wrong guy.’”

Brady and Newson have experience writing for large ensemble casts, having previously worked on shows such as The 100, Narcos and The Chi. Each episode of Bel-Air has been carefully crafted to ensure there is at least one occasion the whole family are together, while there is a sense of resolution – at least partially – every time the credits roll.

“We’re trying to have certain things resolved every episode, but for the majority of the characters, the story continues,” Brady says. “We’re just trying to figure out how to deal those dramatic cards wisely.”

“Even if we don’t resolve a storyline in an episode, you feel a progression,” Newson continues. “Because we broke this episodically, we’re going somewhere and the audience should feel that we’re going somewhere new as opposed to, ‘Well, that was an hour of my life, and I’m not sure exactly what I watched.’”

As for taking on their first showrunning gig, Newson jokes: “I think we spent the last 14 years of our career looking at other showrunners thinking, ‘God, when I get the chance, I’m going to do it so much better.’ I’m a little more sympathetic to the challenges of my former bosses than I used to be. But it is an exciting position.”

Will falls for Lisa, played by Simone Joy Jones

“The job of showrunning is problems and handling them,” Brady says. “We certainly have gotten that, and then some. But I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. And in our partnership, I really don’t see how a single human being could do this job as well as it needs to be done. With respect to those who do it, I’m glad I don’t have to.”

Like any television show, Bel-Air has had its challenges, not least securing a location that could be transformed into Bel-Air Academy, where Will and Carlton go to school.

“We’re doing a show about teenagers and it turns out that people during this pandemic weren’t so keen to have 200 cast and crew come into their properties, so finding locations has been really tough,” Newson says. “But the show now has probably a little more scope because we’re outside more than we anticipated being. You’re not going to see a lot of scenes in classrooms. You will see a lot of scenes of them walking across campus.”

They both promise lots of Easter eggs for fans of the original series. One example lands in episode one, where Will plays on the sitcom’s original theme song to explain his move to Bel-Air: “I got in one little fight and my mum got scared.”

Brady promises the music in this new series will also get people tapping their feet, while Newson hopes viewers will take note of the art work displayed in the Banks residence.

“One of the things we really pushed on this show is the inclusion of African and African-American art,” he says. “In this version, Viv is a painter and they’re rich, so one of the first things we said is they’d be art collectors. We wanted people to walk into this home and not only know, ‘Oh, they’ve got money,’ but that this is a black family with money and the art announces that from the moment you come to the door. We’ve been very lucky to get cooperation from great artists, from people like Hebru Brantley, Ferrari Sheppard and Gio Swaby. It’s a great part of the show.”

With a second season already in the works ahead of its debut on Peacock in the US this Sunday, and on Sky and Now in the UK on Monday, the showrunners are secure in the knowledge there is more of Will’s story to come. Yet while the 10-part series aims to honour the legacy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, they also hope they have achieved their aim of ensuring Bel-Air resonates for people who have never seen the sitcom on which it is based.

“You have to be able to watch it having never seen one frame of the comedy, it needs to make sense and it needs to be compelling,” Newson says. “It’s answering that question of what happened in this family that there was this rift that is only being addressed now that Will has had to be relocated to Bel-Air.”

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