When Morgan Cooper released the fictional trailer for Bel-Air in March 2019, he had no idea that his dramatic reimagining of the beloved sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would amass more than seven million views to date, or that Will Smith would reach out with his stamp of approval.
“Up until that point, I was like, ‘Man, I hope I don’t get a cease and desist and they sue my ass,'” Cooper, who serves as a director, writer and executive producer on the show, tells TVLine.
Instead of a lawsuit, however, Cooper received an invitation from Smith less than 24 hours after the video dropped to discuss his creative vision for a potential series. “I remember going to Calabasas the next day at Westbrook… Will was on FaceTime because he was down in Miami doing [Bad Boys for Life] and he was like, ‘Yo! I love what you made!’ Just so excited about the vision,” he shares.
Bel-Air, which will debut its first three episodes on Peacock Sunday, Feb. 13, remixes the half-hour sitcom into an hour-long family drama about a kid from West Philadelphia navigating a world that’s far different from anything he’s ever known. With the story anchored around Will, the show’s creators sought someone who could match Smith’s charisma, swagger and acting ability — talents that Jabari Banks seemed to have in spades.
“What made him the perfect choice was his acting ability, undeniable charisma, undeniable swag and sense of humor,” co-showrunner T.J. Brady explains.
Cooper adds, “You’re looking for someone who’s a deep well emotionally. They’ve got to have the acting chops, and Jabari, he has the eyes. When you look into his eyes, he’s able to create these really compelling dramatic moments and you need that when you’re filling those types of shoes… So you’re really looking for a unicorn and we found him in this young star who’s just growing brighter by the day.”
“Will has been such an amazing part of this whole experience as a mentor because he’s taught me a lot,” he shares. “The biggest things is just to lean on my instincts and to trust who I am and why I’m here, and to really lean on my upbringing and what I know. That’s what he was doing in the original Fresh Prince. He wasn’t up there trying to be someone else. He was just being authentically himself. And to bring that authenticity to my characters is what I’m doing, too.”
Although the show takes its cues from the OG series, including Will’s backstory, the creatives behind the Peacock drama have no intention of replicating what came before. “The original is so iconic. It’s always going to be an inspiration. We never want to be some knockoff,” Brady notes. “It’s literally just taking any ideas we might get from the original and asking ourselves, ‘What would that look like in reality here in 2022?'”
Bel-Air’s hour-long format also allows the show to go where the ’90s sitcom couldn’t, delving into uncomfortable conversations about race without the comforting veil of humor or a neatly-wrapped ending. Will and Carlton’s differing backgrounds make up the central conflict of series, sparking heated conversations about issues such as voting rights and the use of the n-word.
“We had this wonderful opportunity where, especially in the beginning, Will and Carlton are coming from such different worlds that their point of views are liable to also be very different,” says co-showrunner Rasheed Newson. “And in a drama, because we don’t have to settle everything in half an hour, we can really dig into it and we can also leave it unresolved. At the end of that conversation, no one’s actually changed their mind, but we’ve heard them both out.”
“It is electric, for sure,” Banks says of the cousins’ dynamic in the show. “There’s so much animosity between Will and Carlton. It’s going to be super exciting for people to watch the darker dynamic grow… Carlton is the king of this circle that he’s created and Will throws a wrench in the system that he has going.”
Fans can also expect to see subtle nods to the OG series sprinkled throughout the 10-episode first season. “There’s some really fun surprising moments in store for the viewers and the fans of the original series,” Cooper teases. “You can never reboot The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and so, we wanted to create something that’s truly reimagined these characters through a modern lens while still paying homage to what they did. We pay tribute in those small fun ways when it’s organic through our storytelling.”