A black TV show can’t come out of a blank page. It is always a referendum on the history of the medium, the history of race and representation. Two new shows, “Bel-Air” and “Abbott Elementary,” offer a window into the fascinating pressures, from audiences and from the creators themselves, on early black television in recent times. With “Bel-Air”, which is currently broadcast on Peacock, the qualifier “new” is accompanied by an asterisk. The show is one of those reimaginings — aka reboots — of an existing property, in this case the ’90s NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
The contemporary reboot trend may seem out of control, but the practice is nothing new. Hollywood has been obsessed with refinement and reflection of its own image since the 1930s, an era of remakes. Still, it’s reasonable to feel more cynical about “Bel-Air,” a revival that was inspired by a piece of viral fan fiction. Three years ago, Morgan Cooper, a young cinematographer, created a trailer that took the breezy vibe of “The Fresh Prince” and made it dark, indie, moody. By subtracting the laugh track and treating the dashing child from Philadelphia with a washed-out palette, Cooper found, suddenly turned the fish-out-of-water comedy into a drama.
The problem is that “The Fresh Prince,” a work of slang and satirical genius, already knew it had this ability, when it premiered in 1990. The 20th-century American sitcom often centered on the dilemmas that arise from a sort of fracture in the nuclear family. For black sitcoms, the stakes for sociological insight were higher, as the notion of a black family unit was – and is – somewhat contested. In “The Fresh Prince”, the audience’s object of affinity was Will Smith, playing Will, a pretty baller boy from Philadelphia, who wondered if assimilation into Los Angeles’ black upper class was worth it. Abandoned by his father, Will is raised by a single mother, who sends him to live with wealthy parents literally named Banks. Culture clash signaled three decades of change in black sitcoms; it was like JJ from “Good Times” walking around the brownstone of the Huxtables. Wearing his luminosity in the beige Bel-Air mansion, actor Smith predicted hip-hop’s reconciliation with pop culture and the rise of big-budget black movie star.
Smith is an executive producer of “Bel-Air.” (Cooper, who directed the trailer that inspired the series, serves as a writer, executive producer, and occasional director.) Smith’s involvement may explain the new series’ myopia. “Bel-Air” is absurdly reverential to its source text. The choice to make each episode one hour – twice the length of those in the original series – feels like a sort of genuflect. The pilot opens with a horny fever dream riff to Smith’s legendary theme song. Our New Testament (Jabari Banks) sits on a throne, underwater, a crown adorning his head. This is a reference to a scene that comes later, in which Will nearly drowns at a pool party.
“Bel-Air” departs from the original by showing us a glimpse into Will’s life in Philadelphia. After a confrontation with an enemy that ends in a traumatic night in prison, he goes to live with his aunt and uncle in some sort of witness protection program. All the characters have been upgraded, that is to say made sexy without interest. Uncle Phil, a former judge, is now an incredibly wealthy mover running for district attorney. Aunt Vivian, a teacher in the original, is a lapsed painter in the reboot. Hilary, their eldest daughter, is a culinary influencer, and Geoffrey, previously the family butler, is now a mysterious consigliere to Uncle Phil.
The most significant change is the retooling of Carlton, Will’s cousin. In the ’90s, Alfonso Ribeiro played the character as the charismatic crybaby, the surprisingly wise beta of Will’s peacock alpha. In “Bel-Air,” Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is not just the antagonist of the series, but an avatar of the dark heart of black conservatism. He maintains his popularity at Bel-Air Academy in part by inciting his white male friends into racist behavior, and he despises his cousin with a snobbery that would have made Herman Cain blush. He is an almost tragic figure, poisoned by the rhetoric of black royalty to which he has been subjected all his life.
A recent episode hints at Carlton’s future conversion to righteous racial consciousness, a plot point the writers should have resisted. “Bel-Air” properly revolves around the ugliness of black politics, but it’s too afraid of being misunderstood or misrepresented by its viewers. There’s also – with storylines involving Will’s hometown adversary and Phil’s political enemies being resolved too quickly – flashy crime drama just waiting to surface. The show includes drama like ominous scores, leaden dialogue, and unnecessary cliffhangers. But what if “Bel-Air” turned to its peers such as “Empire”, “Power” or maybe even “Scandal”? The missing element here is the camp of a juicy soap. If we can’t laugh, then we should gasp. Remaking an iconic series is a stupid undertaking – why not give it a go?
Where “Bel-Air” is uncertain of its gender identity, “Abbott Elementary” is assured. Dummy sitcom about the staff of an underfunded Philadelphia public school, “Abbott” feels current, given its focus on social class and the teaching crisis, but it also feels classic, given of his mastery of the tight A-half-hour graphic/B-graphic format. The show, which is nearing the end of its first season, premiered late last year on ABC. A decade of critical rhetoric about TV writers has made network TV virtually synonymous with retro and censorship: ABC stars like Kenya Barris and Shonda Rhimes have left these speakers for the Netflix wilderness, and before Issa Rae went to HBO, ABC refused to take his pilot. Quinta Brunson, the creator of “Abbott,” has found freedom in the formula, crafting a treat for the masses that feels fresher than a lot of buzzy streaming comedies.
The pilot is great. We meet Janine Teagues (played by Brunson), a rookie second grade teacher. She radiates the can-do neuroses of Leslie Knope from “Parks and Rec,” but her edge is immediately revealed. “For the primary grades, the rugs are like a calming space for the kids,” she tells the Invisible Documenters. “It’s like a Xanax. Like a huge Xanax for the kids to sit on.
The film crew is there at the request of Principal Ava (hilarious comedian and writer Janelle James), a clueless and selfish bureaucrat – a glamorous variation of Michael Scott from “The Office”. Janine’s other colleagues are also drawn to trust. There’s Sheryl Lee Ralph, channeling her Broadway height to play Barbara Howard, Wife of God, the veteran kindergarten teacher whom Janine idolizes; Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa Schemmenti, the Italian sage; Tyler James Williams as Gregory Eddie, the high-strung substitute teacher; and Chris Perfetti as Jacob Hill, the overworked white ally. High jinks are generated by real injustices in the public education system, exemplified by Principal Ava, who got her job by blackmailing the superintendent, whom she caught cheating with a church deaconess. . Janine’s naive savior complex is tested in every episode. In the pilot, she tries to acquire a new mat for her class. Thwarted by Ava, she turns to Melissa, who gets her the mat using the Mob Connections.
“Abbott” does not praise teaching, but he is interested in the emotional intensity that a career requires in a country that does not respect education. The direction, done in early episodes by Randall Einhorn, who created “The Office,” is quietly chaotic, reflecting the messiness of America’s failing bureaucracies and the restlessness of young children. The show is full of warm, niche references to the Philadelphia area. It’s also aptly hip; Internet impresario Zack Fox, Brunson’s peer, plays her no-shit boyfriend.
What’s most exciting about “Abbott” is his obvious long game. The show sets up a tangle of relationships that hint at a great emotional range. Will Janine and Gregory evolve like Pam and Jim? How will Ava, a bad boss and a black woman, couple the anti-hero trope? “Abbott” has an idea for his future, and I’ll be there to see it through. ♦