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After Will Smith’s Bel-Air Premieres, Critics Agree On The Peacock Series’ Biggest Problem

In 2019, a short film/parody trailer by Morgan Cooper went viral by reimagining The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a gritty drama rather than the goofy Will Smith comedy of ‘90s lore. The film caught the attention of Smith himself, and three years later, that trailer has been expanded into the dark new series Bel-Air. The first three episodes premiered on Peacock on February 13, with critics getting an early look at the first six episodes ahead of its debut, and despite all the pre-release hype, many are saying the series misses its mark. 

Bel-Air introduces Jabari Banks as the new Will Smith and follows the same premise as the O.G. Fresh Prince, which sees Will sent to live with his Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv after an incident during a pickup game back home in Philadelphia. The critics seem to find a lot of common ground in the belief that merely changing the sitcom’s tone does not allow Bel-Air to drive home its important messages better than — or even as well as —  The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air already did 30 years ago. Let’s take a look at what they had to say.

Inkoo Kang of The Washington Post says Bel-Air told us what we were getting when it removed “Fresh” from the title. This review says the Peacock series wants to tackle important issues like racism; however, Will Smith’s sitcom did that 30 years ago, and with better execution.  

Suck all the joy, exuberance and wondrous charisma out of The Fresh Prince — a worthy launchpad for an actor who, in his prime, was widely considered the biggest movie star in the world — and you’re left with the gloomy and plodding Bel-Air. Not unlike the recent Sex and the City sequel series And Just Like That …, this reboot eschews one of the most vital elements of its source material: its deftness in tackling difficult issues with a light, or at least tonally variable, touch.

Jack Seale of The Guardian says that unlike the hit ‘90s sitcom, the Peacock series doesn’t seem to know who it is or where it’s going. Bel-Air brings up serious issues about class and race but this review argues the resolutions are oversimplified and don’t carry the same weight as when they’re dealt with in the original show, as well as in other more current series like Dear White People and black-ish.

One of the countless magical properties of the sitcom format is that it has a particular ability to create moving dramatic moments, because viewers are wrongfooted when the clown mask suddenly drops: the Fresh Prince episode where Will and Carlton find themselves the victims of racist policing, for instance, or the one where Will’s neglectful father reappears and then abandons his son again, have extra power because they sneak up in the cloak of a gag-filled comedy. With an hour an episode and no jokes to make, Bel-Air has all the time in the world to fashion drama about race, class and coming-of-age, but it ends up being less layered and guileful than its source material.

Tim Surette of TV Guide says Bel-Air should not have existed beyond Morgan Cooper’s viral trailer. In developing Cooper’s idea into a series, it's said that Bel-Air lost its self-awareness, and the antics Will pulls on the show work for a sitcom but don’t translate well within the super-serious Peacock drama.

Bel-Air [is] a confusing series that's too tied to its sitcom roots to pass for a drama to take seriously. It's unclear with its intentions and doesn't justify its existence other than to underline a new era of streaming that's starved for content. There's a way this idea works, but it's not by turning the fun trailer into a full-fledged TV series. Smell you later, Bel-Air.

Matt Roush of TV Insider says there’s nothing fresh about this version of Bel-Air, but he holds out hope that as the series progresses, it could reclaim some of the fun that endeared audiences to the original.

Painfully earnest and mostly stripped of its original buoyancy, this formerly amusing and entertaining fish-out-of-water story is left gasping for an original thought.

Angelica Jade Bastién of Vulture says Bel-Air is a reminder that Black representation isn’t enough, and the way it refashions the familiar characters to live in the current decade is insufficient.  

Cooper’s decision to dramatize the sitcom could have effloresced into a genuinely moving story, teasing out dynamics of class, power, and coming of age in a society that’s never had the ‘racial reckoning’ it believes it did. But we live in an exceedingly dark timeline, where Bel-Air is a byproduct of an industry unwilling to give these stories the radical political and social context they deserve.

One of the toughest things Bel-Air has working against it might just be the strength of its source material and the inevitable comparisons that will be made between the two. The critics seemed to think that despite its light tone, the iconic 1990s sitcom was still able to accomplish emotional stories and tackle social issues that hit home in a way that Bel-Air didn’t in its first handful of episodes. 

To be sure, there are certainly reviews out there that skew more positive if you spend enough time looking. But as far as the most widespread and commonly shared opinions go, everything seen above is par for the course. Here's hoping things spin around into something more embraced as the season goes on.

The first three episodes of Bel-Air are available for streaming now with a Peacock subscription, with new episodes coming on Thursdays. Be sure to check out our 2022 TV Schedule to see what other shows are premiering soon. 

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Can usually be found rewatching The West Wing instead of doing anything productive.