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SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen “Where To?,” Season 1 Episode 10 of “Bel-Air.”
“Bel-Air” Season 1 finale “Where To?” reinterprets the most famous episode of one of the most famous sitcoms of all time. Its showrunners Rasheed Newson and T.J. Brady’s take on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” the Season 4 episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” where Will (Will Smith) finally meets the father who abandoned him as a toddler, who then disappears as quickly as he came.
In this version, Lou (Marlon Wayans, in a surprise guest appearance) didn’t abandon Will (Jabari Banks) by choice. He instead spent 13 years in prison — which, for better or for worse, was kept a secret from Will his entire life. Geoffrey, (Jimmy Akingbola) whose version of the “Fresh Prince” character for “Bel-Air” is not a butler, but rather a house manager who acts as something like an in-home Olivia Pope, digs up a file on Lou which he secretly gives to Will, prompting his dismissal when Phil (Adrian Holmes) finds out. Lou then comes to Bel Air to meet Will for the first time. The reunion is tense at first, but Will and Lou warm up to each other — until Lou insults Vy, prompting a physical altercation.
In a media landscape full of reboots and revivals, Peacock’s “Bel-Air” has managed to do something different. Transposing the original comedy into a drama made room for inspired choices; for example, Carlton’s uptightness is explained by a severe anxiety disorder that drives him to use cocaine, a secret that adds tension to his rivalry with Will. And instead of trying to recreate the ‘90s swagger of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the reboot has a strong visual language of its own, which Newson and Brady credit to the 2019 short film by Morgan Cooper on which “Bel-Air” is based.
With “Where To?” now streaming on Peacock, Variety spoke to Newson and Brady about their relationship the source material and — since the show has already been renewed for a second season — what viewers can expect going forward. (The topic of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars was off the table.)
Why did you decide that Will’s father Lou was absent due to his incarceration, instead of just abandonment of the family, as was the case in the original series?
Rasheed Newson: Will had been defined in large part by his father abandoning him, and had built up a shield for himself based off of that. We wanted to up-end what, in the original series, was pretty straightforward: Lou was an unreliable deadbeat. We wanted more layers, where you could sort of understand why Lou might have made some of the decisions he made.
T.J. Brady: Our take on the show is a lot bigger than just Will’s POV. We wanted to involve Aunt Viv and his mother Vy. We created a lie that they had told the four-year-old boy, and could never decide when would be the right time for them to come clean. You don’t want to tell a four-year-old, “Your father’s in jail.” We had people in our writers’ room who had observed that and the damage it did to young children. So we wanted to give Lou some agency, deciding, “I don’t want him to see me like this.” But when do you tell him? Is it OK to tell a five-year-old? Six-year-old? Seven? They missed an opportunity when Will asked to be told, and they decided collectively to not tell him the truth. And now we want to play the repercussions of that.
Lou was doing his best to break a cycle. “Write me out of the picture.” There’s a part of him thinks, “I became the way I became because I saw my father go through prison,” so he didn’t want his son to have the same experience. It’s both loving and maybe a little selfish.
Lou’s appearance in “Fresh Prince” doesn’t happen until Season 4. Introducing him earlier in “Bel-Air” accelerates Will’s emotional growth and his relationship to Uncle Phil as a father figure. Why tackle all of that so early?
Newson: It seemed like it had to be done. Will comes to them at a time of crisis, and I think Phil naturally likes playing that role. It gave a shape to the season that Phil should earn his place in this boy’s heart — but then lose it by the end of the season. Also, there was a push-pull within Will. On one hand, he says very early on, “I’ve never had a father, I don’t need a father.” But clearly, he’s also been yearning for that his whole life. So when the opportunity comes, he puts his arms around it.
Given the intensity of Will and Carlton’s rivalry in your first few episodes, it was surprising that they end up becoming so close by the end of the season.
Brady: That’s been a priority for us. Before Will got there, Carlton liked to see himself as the prince of Bel-Air, and then somebody came in and knocked the crown off his head, whether he meant to or not. But by the end of that episode, he cares about Will. Will is family. Will held up a mirror to [Carlton’s personal struggles], and he wants Will in his life. So I’m glad to hear your surprise. I hope the audience is surprised.
Why did you decide that your version of Carlton would have an anxiety disorder?
Newson: He was incredibly driven [in the original series], and underneath that, there seemed to be this frantic energy. Any setback was a major emotional disaster for that original character. And like T.J. said, we’ve started with Carlton as the original prince of Bel-Air, but we also thought it was probably very hard for him. All the social demands of being popular were tough for Carlton, and for Will it came naturally. Will, without even meaning to, steals all your thunder, and that would of course upset Carlton. Also, we knew he had an anxiety disorder, but we showed everyone the drug use first, because we were in Will’s POV. That immediately makes people think, “Oh, he’s a spoiled rich kid doing drugs.” You write him off — but it gave us somewhere to go. Once we began to show why he was engaged in that behavior, people began to come around.
Everybody talks about the fact that Will doesn’t have a father. I’d also point out that neither of these boys have a brother. And that’s not an easy relationship to suddenly have thrust upon you. Especially when you’re a teenager. So I think what we’ve also been watching this season is both of them learn how to become brothers to one another.
They seem to learn a lot by observing how Phil acts towards his fraternity brothers in Episode 3.
Brady: Absolutely. Just seeing the brotherhood of Phil with a successful, professional, loving, caring, Black male community.
Newson: And before it went bad, you could have said the same thing about [Will and Carlton] observing the relationship between Phil and Jeffrey. It was a working relationship, but they were friends. They were confidants. And the boys observe that as well.
Were you ever surprised by your actors in their interpretations of your writing? Did anything ever change from script to screen?
Newson: The surprise that got me was Coco [Jones] and Jordan [L. Jones] as Hilary and Jazz. In my head, he would be trying to flirt with her and she wouldn’t be having it. But Coco played it like, “I’m interested.” It was funny, and it was great chemistry. It made us dive into that relationship sooner.
Brady: When you see gold, you pounce. We hadn’t planned on doing that, but when that cut came in — not even the cut! The day we shot it! — we were like, “There’s something great here.”
Since many of “Fresh Prince’s” major conflicts are all compacted into Season 1 of Bel-Air, where do you plan to go in Season 2? Are we going to see more of Lou?
Brady: We want to see more of L.A. outside of Bel-Air, as Will tries to discover the city and discover himself, now that he’s not Philadelphia anymore. We hope to see Lou in the future. I don’t know if it will be in Season 2 or not. But we have not written him out of the possibilities.
Newson: We’ve talked about trying to bring, in one way or another, some… we’ll call it grandmother energy. It’s just something we haven’t had. Grandmas are great because they can just say anything and get away with it. One of the doors we thought we could open, even if we don’t have Lou himself, is someone to spur Will and say, “What do you know about that other side of your family? You didn’t just not know your father. What about his siblings? His mother?” There’s a lot more for Will to explore.
What are your takeaways having kicked off a reboot of such a famous show?
Brady: It allowed me to see something that I don’t see very often in television, which is people tuning in wanting to hate it, and finding out that they really enjoy it. That has been the most gratifying response, whether it’s texts from distant friends and relatives, or looking at threads on Twitter. People say to me, “Wow, this is so much better than I thought it would be.” It’s hard to stand out in a cluttered TV landscape. And I’m just very proud. I want to credit Morgan. He never called it a reboot. He said, “It’s a reimagining.” When we looked at it as reimagining the entire concept, instead of trying to redo the show, that unlocked it for Rasheed and I to do our best work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.