Culture on My Mind
January 24, 2022
This week, reboots are back on my mind thanks to the new trailer for Bel-Air.
Bel-Air is a reboot of the ’90s classic sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That sitcom starred Will Smith portraying a fictionalized version of himself, itself loosely based on the story of record executive Benny Medina.
Medina was born in East Los Angeles, California, into a poor family. After his mother died and his father abandoned the family, he was shuffled through foster homes. He ran away multiple times before he and his siblings were taken in by his aunt. He befriended a wealthy white Beverly Hills teenager whose family allowed him to live in a refurbished garage behind their property. He then attended Beverly Hills High and became a successful student.
That story is the basis for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which Will Smith’s character moves away from the bullying in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to his aunt and uncle’s home in Bel-Air, a wealthy neighborhood in Los Angeles. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990 to 1996 for 148 episodes, running the gamut of slapstick humor to social commentary, and it is considered the springboard for Will Smith’s acting career after his modest fame as an ’80s rapper.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wasn’t the first television series (or story, for that matter) to utilize the fish-out-of-water and culture shock for humor tropes, but it was quite successful. A reboot was rumored since about 2015, but a fan-made trailer was released in 2019 that mused about a dramatic reboot of the sitcom. It was spotted by Will Smith who praised it and used it as fuel to drive what eventually became Bel-Air.
This, of course, has raised some questions about reboots. Specifically, some concern has been raised about changing a comedy to a dark and gritty retelling under the umbrella of the original. Something that TV Tropes calls “In Name Only”, citing properties like Riverdale, Nancy Drew, Sabrina, the 2009 version of The Prisoner, and so on.
To an extent, this also applies to the “Snyderverse” of DC Comics films, starting with Man of Steel‘s and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s “grimdark” interpretations of Superman, Batman, and other DC Comics heroes.
In general, the concerns are valid. We’ve seen several properties with stories told under a familiar name, often used to generate buzz and attract attention for profit. But that reminds us that intent truly matters.
The example that I point to is the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which paid full honors to the short-lived 1978-1980 series of the same name while using the same story under a different light. The Battlestar Galactica of the early 2000s restored the brand to relevance with a post-9/11 inspired story in a post-9/11 world, fulfilling the role of speculative fiction by offering a view of humanity through the lens of metaphor.
It’s something that modern toxic fan critics call “being woke” and “pillaging our childhoods”.
What I see in this brief look at Bel-Air are the same tropes and story beats as the original Fresh Prince, but it sheds the light-hearted slapstick romp in lieu of a story about our current world of racial, economic, and social disparity.
I’m pretty sure that’s why they called it Bel-Air instead of something Fresh Prince related. It seems to be shot at making something different and original with a tip of the hat to one of the most popular interpretations of popular storytelling tropes.
It also has plenty of support, including Will Smith as a creator and producer. Peacock, NBC’s streaming service which is hosting this as an original series, has also given the show a two-season order straight out of the gate.
It’s not something that I plan on watching right away, but I feel like the message it appears to carry is important in our current culture. It feels like less of a cash grab and more of an attempt at relevant storytelling in the 2020s.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.