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Sitcom or Not, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Knew How to Pull Off Drama

‘Bel-Air,’ a new series from Peacock, reimagines ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ as a serious drama. But the original series excelled at delivering moments of poignancy in its own way.

Richard A. Chance

This Sunday, Peacock will premiere the first episode of Bel-Air, a contemporary, dramatic reimagining of the beloved ’90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is looking back on the legacy of the original series and the influence of the star who defined it, Will Smith. This is a story all about how pop culture got flipped, turned upside down. Welcome to Fresh Prince Day.

When I first watched, as a child, the iconic hug scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I couldn’t fully understand it.

Sure, I knew there were people who grew up in single-parent homes and had friends who didn’t know their birth parents at all. But I was fortunate enough to have two parents in the household, with a loving Black father. I couldn’t fully grasp the importance of that moment. But that’s the tragic beauty of the 21-plus minutes of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.” You don’t need to share Will’s exact experience to still feel that scene. To feel the air get a bit stuffier as he clings to Uncle Phil’s chest and grimaces, “How come he don’t want me, man?”

As I got older, I realized just how powerful that embrace was. And with The Fresh Prince getting a dramatic, more serious reimagining called Bel-Air this Sunday on Peacock, it should be remembered that the original series never shied away from hard topics. In between six seasons of one-liners and Carlton dances are heavy themes such as gun violence, drug and alcohol addiction, police immorality, and the interpretation of Black identity.

Bel-Air will likely touch on those same issues, but it’s hard to pinpoint many shows—let alone sitcoms—that explored them in a smarter way than The Fresh Prince. The scene when Will’s father leaves is the one people talk about most, but the episode that continually plays in my mind is “Mistaken Identity,” from Season 1.

Carlton and Will are tasked with taking Uncle Phil’s law partner’s Mercedes Benz down to Palm Springs. The cousins end up getting lost in an unknown neighborhood and get pulled over. Will tries to warn Carlton about the dangers of Driving While Black, but Carlton ignores him.

The cops arrest the pair, believing them to be the culprits in a string of expensive-car thefts that have plagued the area. Will concocts a plot that gets Uncle Phil, Vivian, and Phil’s law partner down to the police station, culminating in a tense scene in which James Avery demonstrates his acting chops in an impassioned speech that gets the officers to release Will and Carlton. But the specter of what could have happened—what happens to people who look like Jacob Blake, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and many others in this country—hangs over the episode.

This was still in the early days of The Fresh Prince, but the message was clear: This show was prepared to juggle typical sitcom fare with subjects that Black and brown parents have warned their children about for generations.

Take “Just Say Yo,” from Season 3. Will is struggling to balance obligations for his basketball team, job, school work, and girlfriend. A teammate of his, noticing Will’s distress, offers him amphetamines to stay awake, which he momentarily considers before tossing them in his locker. Meanwhile, Carlton is concerned about a large pimple that has put his big plans for senior prom in jeopardy.

The episode continues with Carlton seeking advice on how to get his date to stop staring at his zit, prompting him to beg Will for vitamin E tablets. A drowsy Will tells him to check his locker, where Carlton accidentally discovers the speed and takes a small handful.

The results are predictable. After a short burst of dancing across the prom floor, Carlton collapses into Will’s arms. He awakens in the hospital after his stomach has been pumped of 2,000 mg of amphetamines (which is about 10 times the dose that can kill you, but I digress). After Will confesses to Carlton about the true nature of the pills, the latter promises not to tell any of the other family members about Will’s involvement. The final minutes of this episode are crucial: Fresh Prince could’ve ended here and come off feeling like a D.A.R.E. infomercial, but the series drives the actual point home in the closing scenes.

The mood of the episode starts to change when Phil berates Carlton for his poor choices and praises Will for his quick thinking. The tension comes to a boiling point when Phil gives his nephew season tickets for the Clippers, leading a guilty Will to finally tell his uncle where the drugs came from—and reflect on how such a mistake could have killed his cousin. Phil is irate, and makes Will tell the whole story to the rest of the family. After re-explaining it to them, Will lets out a wobbly “I’m sorry, man” to Carlton that offers a slight glimpse into his serious acting talent to come.

But Will and Phil aren’t the only ones who can hold down a dramatic story line. Carlton, who is often used as the comic relief valve, has his share of dramatic turns. One significant example comes in Season 4’s “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud,” in which he and Will rush a Black fraternity. The house leader, “Top Dog,” doesn’t like how Carlton acts due to his wealthy upbringing. This leads Carlton to have a much rougher rush than the other pledges.

Still, Carlton does everything the brothers ask him to do, hoping his extra effort will make him accepted among a group of men that have typically shunned him. So when he learns that Will has been accepted to the frat but he has not, Carlton questions Top Dog’s authenticity in wanting to uplift his fellow brothers.

“Being Black isn’t what I’m trying to be, it’s what I am,” Carlton says. “I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles as you are. So why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together but you don’t even know what that means.

“If you ask me, you’re the real sellout,” Carlton adds.

The moment is powerful not only because of Alfonso Ribeiro’s delivery, but because it touches on questions that have followed Black people for decades: Who gets to decide what is and isn’t considered “Black,” and how much does one’s upbringing change how fellow Black people perceive them? Uncle Phil asks this very question near the end of the episode when he explains how he worked his ass off to get out of poverty and give his kids a better life, only to see them ostracized by their own people. “When are we going to stop doing this to each other?” he asks as the screen cuts to black.

Of course, Carlton’s most memorable dramatic sequence occurs a season later, in “Bullets Over Bel-Air,” in which Will takes a bullet for his cousin when the two are robbed at an ATM. The bullet narrowly misses Will’s spine and puts him in the hospital.

As the family gathers in the hospital room, Will jokes around with them, trying to keep the mood light. But something is off with Carlton; there’s a palpable darkness clouding the room. He finally explodes, questioning why no one is taking the incident seriously, before stomping out to take a walk.

Uncle Phil follows him to the hospital elevator and explains that the legal process will uncover the robber and bring him to justice. But Carlton’s typically rosy worldview has vanished. “I’m all grown up” he says. “Don’t tell me more fairy tales.” This is a fascinating 180 from the end of “Mistaken Identity,” four seasons earlier, when Carlton believed that if he did everything right, nothing would go wrong. It’s the sign of a television series that took its characters seriously, rather than relegating them to archetypes.

Carlton returns to Will’s side the following morning, saying he’s eternally in Will’s debt for saving his life. Will asks for a hug, but recoils when he feels a gun in Carlton’s pocket. Ribeiro once again delivers, with an animated anger that pulses through the screen. He has believed in law and order his whole life, yet a single event has shattered that conception. He is experiencing what many young Black people deal with every day. How do you protect yourself and the ones you love in an unjust society?

When Will realizes that Carlton won’t listen to reason, he demands that Carlton make good on his debt and urges him to put the gun on the bed. After a great deal of reluctance, Carlton places the gun at Will’s feet and leaves the room. Will picks up the gun, empties the chamber, and begins to sob into his hands. The impact is clear: Will has suffered the physical damage from the encounter, but Carlton has endured perhaps an even greater emotional toll.

Which finally brings us to, for my money, one of the greatest episodes in television history: Season 4’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.”

Will’s father, Lou, had been a lightly discussed subject up to this point in the series, with the audience knowing only that he left Will and his mother in Philadelphia when the boy was young—and hadn’t reached out since. So when Will recognizes him at the Peacock Stop, his college’s campus convenience store, he is duly apprehensive. But it isn’t long before Will is inviting Lou over to the Banks’s mansion for dinner.

Vivian’s, Hilary’s, and Ashley’s reaction to Lou is more along the lines of surprise, but Phil holds genuine contempt for the man. He tries to restrain himself but ultimately blows up on the absentee father, asking where Lou was when Will needed him most. Lou relents, unable to deliver a counterargument, but Will is enamored of Lou and they spend the middle part of the episode attending a carnival and growing close. Lou offers to take Will along on his trucking route and Will, currently on summer break, gleefully agrees.

But Phil remains skeptical, up to the very point that Will and Lou are scheduled to leave. Lou is an hour late and Phil wonders whether he’s already skipped town. Just as Phil’s prediction seems to be proved, Geoffrey announces that Lou has arrived. But the man comes bearing bad news: He has received an offer to drive a shipment from L.A. to Maine in 72 hours, something that Vivan sees as a bonding experience for the estranged father and son, but Lou says is a one-man job that can’t afford to be slowed down by another passenger. He promises to return and take Will on a trip soon.

There’s just one more thing: Lou is in a hurry and doesn’t want to break the news to his son. While he and Phil argue over who should tell him, Will enters the room. You can feel the pressure mount as Lou informs Will about the change in plans.

Will is visibly hurt. As Lou leaves, Will calls him by his first name for the first time instead of “dad” like he has since the beginning of the episode. The room now belongs only to Will and Phil, as the elder tries to console his nephew. At first, Will keeps up a tough exterior, dismissing the seriousness while making a few jokes. But before long, the facade starts to crack. He launches into a quick-fire review of everything he’s accomplished—learning how to shoot a basketball, how to drive, how to shave—without his father. “To hell with him!” he cries out, shaking the room.

Right when he appears to be done, a visible quiver starts to overtake his lip and he whimpers that iconic line: “How come he don’t want me, man?” The scene is instantly recognizable as the heart of what this show is about: the growth of Will’s relationship with the distant side of the family, and how he dealt with growing up as a fish out of water. That he shares this tender moment with Phil is no surprise. Immediately after Will’s emotional query, Phil brings him into a tight hug. Avery, a trained Shakesperean actor, whispered in Smith’s ear during the embrace, “That’s fucking acting right there.” Smith had been struggling to nail the performance in previous takes, but in that moment, the two made magic.

That scene, as well as early performances in movies like Six Degrees of Separation, showcased Smith’s range as a dramatic actor, and while it’d be difficult to pinpoint that as the exact moment people began to think of Will Smith as more than a rapper and goofball comedian, it’s certainly a prime candidate.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one of the greatest sitcoms ever, but just because it was fueled by jokes didn’t mean it wasn’t also adept at showing the darker sides of growing up in a Black household. That’s a challenge for Peacock’s Bel-Air to live up to. It comes in with a relatively unknown cast, and is treading over material diehard fans will say doesn’t need retelling. But if it can capture the spirit of the original, that intangible ability to handle drama skillfully without letting the plot get away, it can succeed. Yet there will be nothing quite like the chill that creeps up your spine and the tears that bubble in your eyes when you hear those final seven words of “Papa Got a Brand New Excuse.”