Last year, “Bel-Air” caught everyone by surprise. Reboots don’t usually stand toe to toe with the original. And the smart thing about Peacock’s “Bel-Air” was it didn’t try to copy its classic and still highly syndicated inspiration, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Instead, it recognized the times and did a deep dive into issues a Black cast comedy could only touch on over 30 years ago. So intra-racial class issues, mental health, jealousy and more became the primary topics in the drama format sparked by a viral video from Morgan Cooper who dared to reimagine the classic. Plus, “Bel-Air” wasn’t afraid to shake up the casting, favoring actors with darker complexions while still maintaining the spirit of the original. With that kind of success, of course the second season is highly anticipated and burdened with the question of “Will it be as good as the first?”
Sadly, success has not meant smooth sailing internally, with showrunners coming and going, with the last one standing being Carla Banks-Waddles, whose producing credits also include “Good Girls.” Because she was also involved with the first season in various capacities, there is reason to be hopeful, especially with the entire cast (including Jabari Banks who stars as Will) coming back. What’s different, however, is tone. A refreshing sense of discovery dictated the first season, which is something a second season just can’t do. There was also a lightheartedness to it that is absent in Season 2. But for good reason. After all, with Will moving out over feeling betrayed by secrets about his father Lou (an excellent portrayal by Marlon Wayans) his Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) kept from him, the second season can’t help but feel, well, dramatic. So that’s where it all starts, but it’s not where it stays.
In the four episodes provided for review, “Bel-Air” Season 2 works through Will’s departure as well as that of Jeffrey (a great reimagining of the one-time butler to adapt him to a Ray Donovan-ish in-house fixer in Jimmy Akingbola). Will’s absence has led him to double down on providing for his own future and he’s decided basketball is the way. And for some reason he has tagged Doc (Brooklyn McLinn), who runs an academy aimed at getting young basketball players to the next level, as the only person to get him there. It’s a move that promises more future tension between him and his Uncle Phil. It’s also a dynamic that introduces a new love interest in Doc’s niece Jackie (Jazlyn Martin), even though he still has lingering feelings for Lisa (Simone Joy Jones). Meanwhile, Uncle Phil and Jeffrey have a tense frenemy relationship that promises to be disclosed in time.
The main buzz, however, has been around original Ashley Tatyana Ali popping up in the new season. In her role as beloved teacher Mrs. Hughes, she directly interacts with the new Ashley (Akira Akbar), serving as her mentor and giving her comfort as one of few Black children in a predominantly white school. In step with the CRT controversy brewing in schools across the country, she comes under attack, and this leads to Black Lives Matter-style conversations and actions. Although it is topical, this direction is one far more expected given the times and doesn’t necessarily surprise in ways the first season did. So far the much touted appearance by rapper Saweetie, who had a recurring role on Season 3 of “grown-ish,” falls way short of its hype.
Hilary (Coco Jones) is taking on the responsibilities of managing an influencer house, which brings her in conflict with top influencer Ivy (Karrueche Tran, “Claws”). She is also taking her relationship with Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) to the next level, which is a move her parents may not fully support. Gone for now, it seems, is the brash Hilary of the first season who challenged implicit bias and anti-Blackness, regardless of how subtle it was.
Carlton continues to struggle with his Black identity, particularly as defined by others. That he does this while battling anxiety continues the mental health conversation started in the first season. It also expands discussions about what Black girls and women are also taught regarding what makes a desirable Black male partner in addition to how young Black men, in both Carlton and Will, grapple with how to define themselves.
While Aunt Viv is still resurrecting her art career, it comes with challenges she didn’t anticipate, particularly surrounding how to assert her voice as a woman who is older and wiser. After stepping away from his law firm to pursue his political ambitions, Phil is also struggling with what ownership and leadership truly means. And though Will’s mother Vy didn’t factor strongly in the original, April Parker Jones made such a strong impression in the first season that it would be lovely to have her back.
Pinpointing a clear direction for Season 2 in the four episodes provided has indeed been hard. One thing, however, remains unchanged. As with Season 1, “Bel-Air” and its main cast remain charming and engaging enough to captivate an audience. So, while the show’s novelty has worn off, its welcome has not.
“Bel-Air” Season 2 premieres on Feb. 23 on Peacock with new episodes released weekly on Thursday