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How ‘Bel-Air’ changes 9 beloved ‘Fresh Prince’ characters from the original

“Bel-Air’s” Jimmy Akingbola, from left, Akira Jolie Akbar, Olly Sholotan, Jabari Banks, Cassandra Freeman, Adrian Holmes and Coco Jones.
(Kwaku Alston / Peacock)
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The following story contains spoilers from the first three episodes of “Bel-Air.”

Change can be hard. And scary. Especially for the writers of the new series “Bel-Air.”

“It’s not an unsubstantiated fear — if we don’t get it right, the audience will hit us at every turn and we’re going to get read on Twitter and everywhere else,” says co-showrunner Rasheed Newson. “Typically, when it comes to reboots, you don’t want to offend the sacred text, you don’t want to do anything to these characters that’s gonna make anybody mad. But then the characters end up not doing anything at all. So we went in some new directions.”

The Peacock series, expanding the vision first revealed in Morgan Cooper’s viral 2019 short film, drastically retells “Fresh Prince” in a contemporary setting, and without a live audience to cut the tension of the high-stakes setups once played for laughs. Here are the key differences between the characters of the ‘90s sitcom and its dramatic reimagining.

“It didn’t feel like a gamble to me,” creator Morgan Cooper says of the self-funded project, now a Peacock series. “That’s what we have to do as artists.”

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Will

(NBC; Peacock)

The sitcom’s titular character, though loosely based on the experiences of music executive Benny Medina, leaned heavily on the real-life personality of Will Smith: a charismatic, streetwise teen with an aptitude for music, talent on the basketball court and skills with the ladies. Its theme song explained why Will moved across the country, while showing him being spun around in the air by a local bully.

“Bel-Air” ups the stakes to justify the drastic relocation: One night, after finishing a game, Will’s best friend Tray is wrongfully accused of hitting a gang leader in the face with a basketball. To interrupt the resulting beatdown, Will pulls a gun from Tray’s backpack and shoots it in the air, then aims it at the gang leader until the cops pull up and arrest him. While Will spends the night in jail, his mother gets help from Will’s Uncle Phil, a high-powered lawyer who pulls strings to ensure his release and offers to keep him safe in Los Angeles, far from the gang leader’s revenge. (Or is it?)

Making his onscreen debut, Jabari Banks — who had the “Fresh Prince” boxed set as a child and is actually from West Philadelphia! — says his version of Will is “a little grittier. He’s very prideful, he doesn’t like getting his toes stepped on and, any chance he gets to prove someone wrong, he will do that. He don’t take no s—, and sometimes that gets him into trouble. But I’m excited for people to see what’s been bubbling up inside him as that’s all going down.”

And as in the original, Will and his cousin Carlton do not initially get along — not only because Will wears his school blazer inside-out, but also because “they have two different ideas about how the world works, but they have to figure out how to coexist in the same house and the same school, which is Carlton’s world,” says Banks.

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Phillip

(NBC; Peacock)

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The late James Avery played the Banks family’s strict, self-made patriarch, a high-powered lawyer vying for a judicial seat. He remains iconic for anchoring some of the series’ most honest moments, whether reminding Will of his activist heritage or comforting him amid his father’s continued absence. (Uncle Phil was also subject to his nephew’s countless jokes about his size.)

In “Bel-Air,” Adrian Holmes plays Philip, who is campaigning to be the next district attorney. Though he’s well in his comfort zone when schmoozing donors at opulent parties, he can’t guarantee local Black voters will turn out at the polls for him. Attempts to reestablish that connection have him looking back at who he was before he became rich . (The scene in which Phil is stepping with his fraternity brothers — a moment that drew a reaction when the trailer first dropped — was “a lot of fun, but my knees were sore for about a week and a half after that,” says Holmes. “I was wearing dress shoes for that scene, I didn’t put in any insoles, I wasn’t gellin’ at the time! But it was worth every bit of pain.”)

Holmes also says of his Philip, “His definition of success is how well he can provide for his family, both financially and as a parent and husband. So he does self-evaluation as to how supportive he’s being to his wife and his kids.” Though Holmes doesn’t physically resemble his “Fresh Prince” counterpart, “Adrian was who was best for the role,” Cooper says of casting him. “He gave us all the things we were looking for in a reimagined Philip Banks: so much strength and charisma, but also an inherent warmth.”

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Vivian

(NBC; NBC; Peacock)

Played first by Janet Hubert and then by Daphne Maxwell Reid, Vivian was an astute activist who, early on the sitcom, led memorable episodes in which she educated Bel-Air Academy students about Black history, showed off her singing talents and, of course, absolutely owned a dance audition. But by and large, “Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil only really had time to be the authority figures and the words of wisdom at the end of the episode,” says Newson.

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With Cassandra Freeman in the “Bel-Air” role, Vivian is a professor who put her art career on hold for 15 years to support Phil’s ambitions and raise their three children. Will’s arrival sends his aunt on a journey of personal and professional rediscovery. “Viv and Phil start to look at their roles in their relationship — like, aren’t you supposed to be each other’s cheerleader? Aren’t you supposed to hold each other accountable for each other’s dreams, and how you get those dreams?” Freeman says. “What society does to women is, you become a mother and then they want to mute the creative, sexual and ambitious parts of you that should be uncaged. Just hold on, Aunt Viv is gonna live.”

In addition to dealing with her kids’ latest predicaments — “There’s so many conversations that are interested in the subtlety of what it means to be an adult, and it’s never as easy as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’” says Freeman — Vivian also reveals why she and Will’s mother have drifted so far apart. “In our show, these two families have been estranged for 10 years,” says Newson. “Will’s been broke in West Philly while the Bankses have been rich in Bel-Air, and you can’t send ‘em a plane ticket? Why haven’t these families been talking for this long? There are some family secrets here that they’re not talking about.”

The beloved ’90s sitcom starring a young Will Smith becomes a contemporary drama, anchored by excellent new lead Jabari Banks.

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Hilary

(NBC; Peacock)

As the oldest Banks daughter, Karyn Parsons’ Hilary was written as a shallow, self-centered sweetheart with impeccable style and a completely packed social calendar. After dropping out of college, she pursued a career as a weather girl at the local TV station (where she met her ill-fated fiancé) and found fame as a talk show host.

Her command of fashion still unmatched, the Hilary of 2022 is a culinary influencer who’s making a name for herself by walking her social media following through her family recipes — dishes that aren’t exactly welcomed by white-facing legacy media brands. She left college, to the chagrin of her mother, and is now trying to define her career goals. “She is going to have to examine what success really looks like to her, and how much she is willing to sacrifice who she is in order to achieve that,” says co-showrunner T.J. Brady.

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In both “Fresh Prince” and “Bel-Air,” “Hilary is very headstrong, like she has a way that her life is supposed to pan out and it’s going to be that way, regardless of anybody else’s opinions,” says Coco Jones, who plays her in the new series. “I love that Hilary always stays true to herself and, even if she stumbles and veers off a little bit, she always goes back her center of, ‘I’m good enough. The things that I can do are good enough. Who I am is good enough. And whoever doesn’t see that, that’s not my problem, you know?’ And of course, she looks stunning. Every look kills.”

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Carlton

(NBC; Peacock)

Who can listen to Tom Jones without recalling Alfonso Ribeiro doing his character’s signature dance moves? Conservative in politics and unlucky in love, the spoiled, scholarly son of the Banks family was the polar opposite of cousin Will, who often teased him for his choices in clothing, music and slang. “These are two Black men who are the same age but from completely different walks of life, but Carlton’s life experience doesn’t make him any less Black than Will,” says Cooper of the cousin characters.

As in the sitcom, Will and Carlton are anything but fast friends on “Bel-Air.” Though grappling with anxiety, Carlton is both a strong student and a top lacrosse player at their private high school, where most of the students are white and some are comfortable using racial slurs in his presence. “Carlton is going to have to reckon with some of the ways he’s had to adapt to get by in the rich, white world he inhabits,” says Brady. Adds Newson, “He’s been swimming in this water for so long, he doesn’t even know there’s something toxic in the stream.”

Played with palpable complexity by Olly Sholotan, Carlton isn’t always going to be feuding with Banks’ Will. “As they navigate life together, they start sticking up for each other more,” he says. “He grows to accept that he isn’t like me, but I‘ve still got his back because I love him and he’s family. That’s a lesson that we as people can take away from this: Differences are beautiful, and they offer you the opportunity to learn more about humanity.”

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Ashley

(Iris Schneider / Los Angeles Times; Peacock)

Often relegated to Hilary’s helper or Vivian’s fixation, the youngest Banks daughter quickly bonded with Will who, most memorably, legitimized her disdain for playing the violin by getting her a drum set and acted as her manager when she pursued a singing career. The two were something of a rebellious duo: Remember when she dropped out of private school to attend public school, and Will pretended to be her father for a parent-teacher conference?

On “Bel-Air,” Ashley is just as self-assured — now as a Gen Z tween. “Even though she lives this privileged life, she wants to make a mark on the world, even if that means stepping out of the Bel-Air bubble,” says Akira Akbar, who plays her. “I love that Ashley always can just be herself. She’s very complex and peels back a lot of layers throughout the show, and it’s going to be very relatable because she’s dealing with a lot more issues that kids nowadays deal with.” Her storyline “comes out a little slower, but it was great to flesh out that character so that her role wasn’t just to be cutesy,” teases Newson.

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Geoffrey

(NBC; Peacock)

With a posh British accent and peerless aplomb, the white-gloved butler of the Banks household was played by Joseph Marcell. “The way he would deliver those beautiful, dry one-liners would have me in stitches,” says “Bel-Air” actor Jimmy Akingbola. “So many times, he’s so rude to Uncle Phil, it’s hilarious. It’s almost to the point where he knew his value — like, ‘I know everything that goes on in this house and you guys wouldn’t be able to survive without me.’”

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However, “with all due respect towards the sitcom, I always had a problem with the idea of a Black family having a Black butler,” says Cooper. “In our show, Geoffrey is not a butler, but a residential manager who moonlights as Phil’s wartime consigliere.”

In the first “Bel-Air” episodes, Geoffrey is seen sipping liquor and playing pool. Though he doesn’t clean the house, per se, he does “tidy things up,” Akingbola says of his character. “He knows what’s going on with everyone in the house, and Phil sees him as an equal and often invites him to strategize with him on things.” Cooper promises that there’s a certain reason why he’s in L.A. in the first place.

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Jazz

(Al Pereira / Getty Images; Peacock)

In the second “Fresh Prince” episode, Ashley was taught how to play the drums by a man with swag and sunglasses whom Will had met at a club during a night out. DJ Jazzy Jeff spent the show’s six seasons by Will’s side, hitting on Hilary every chance he could and getting literally tossed out of the mansion by Uncle Phil (except for that one time he got married in their living room).

“He was effortlessly funny, no matter what was going on,” says Jordan L. Jones, who plays the new Jazz. On “Bel-Air,” Jazz is introduced as a driver-for-hire from Inglewood who picks Will up from the airport and drives him (with dice in the mirror) to the Banks mansion for the first time. He’s got various business pursuits, including being a DJ. And of course, he still has that big smile and those signature sunglasses. “There’s certain scenes where they give me full reign on whether to wear them,” says Jones. “So even if it’s nighttime, even if we’re at a club, even if we’re inside, he might still be wearing ‘em!”

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Lisa

(NBC; Peacock)

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Though “Bel-Air” has a character named Lisa, she is not a new version of Will’s “Fresh Prince” girlfriend, played by Nia Long. “It’s our way of letting the audience know that this is a significant love interest and someone who’s gonna be sticking around for a while,” says Newson of the deliberate choice. Played by Simone Joy Jones, Lisa is a fellow Bel-Air Academy student who is working to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swim team and remains a close friend of the Banks family. When she meets Will for the first time, they have an instant chemistry.

Also, she used to date Carlton. They had a messy breakup and he still wants to be with her.

“I love the idea of a love triangle for me,” says Jones with a laugh. “She and Will bond so quickly because she’s at that school on scholarship, so she’s in this very white world and these very white spaces in a different way than Carlton is,” she says. “Going to a school like that, you hear a lot and feel a lot, just trying to navigate and figure out who you are as a Black girl in a white world.”

But Lisa doesn’t just exist as a part of Will and Carlton’s feud or friendship; she’s a full character in her own right, and future episodes explore her personal life and her family situation. Promises Cooper of the character, “She has agency and perspective, she pulls no punches. There’s no other way to put it — Lisa is a badass.”

‘Bel-Air’



Where: Peacock
When: Any time, starting Feb. 13
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)






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