“I remember sitting across from you in the table read and thinking, ‘Yo, I really like this dude,’ ” says Olly Sholotan (Carlton) to Jabari Banks (Will) in a video conference call joined by show runners Rasheed Newson and T.J. Brady. “That Saturday, we drove around L.A. for, like, 11 hours; we did not stop talking.”
“It was really authentic. It felt really pure, the relationship Olly and I formed offscreen,” says Banks. “We’re re-creating these iconic characters; there’s no impersonation, people would see right through that. We had to be honest.” “Bel-Air” sprang from filmmaker Morgan Cooper‘s trailer for something that didn’t exist: a dramatic take on the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” That comedy, of course, launched the Hollywood career of then-rapper Will Smith as a character named “Will Smith.” In both versions, a fight on a Philadelphia basketball court leads to street-smart Will relocating to the toniest of L.A. enclaves to live with wealthy relatives — among them, cousin Carlton, who is extremely assimilated into the overwhelmingly white, privileged social environs.
“It’s different than a role you’re just creating yourself,” 23-year-old Banks says of reimagining the beloved sitcom that bowed in 1990. “Eighty percent of the people watching this show probably came with their arms crossed. We had to be authentic.”Considering recent events, a show about “Will Smith” risking his future because of a senseless, violent altercation takes on unexpected resonance. But audiences have been able to separate the show from the headlines. “By the time [the Smith-Chris Rock Oscars slap] happened, our season was done,” Newson says. “When you watch ‘Bel-Air,’ you’re watching the work of 200 people over several months; it has no relation to the Oscars. I just didn’t want anyone to look at us through the lens of that event.”
What the fans have gotten instead is a drama built on the premise, “What if key moments in ‘Fresh Prince’ actually happened? How would people really react?” For instance, the inciting incident on the basketball court has been updated to include Will handling a gun and finding himself on the business end of drawn police weapons. “Bel-Air” doesn’t gloss over that life-threatening moment and move on; Will is haunted by PTSD flashbacks throughout the first season. “That comes from, ‘Let’s play it for real,’ ” notes Newson. “It’s the most frightening night of his life, and he’s not just going to shake it off on the flight to L.A. “I was stopped by the police going to the post office once, and handcuffed — it had nothing to do with me. There was a robbery in the neighborhood. I was fine, but if you are Black and you are having an encounter with the police, it’s a near-death experience,” he adds.