Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Bel-Air Showrunners T.J. Brady And Rasheed Newson On Adapting The Sitcom & Will Smith - Exclusive Interview

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was an international sensation when it was first broadcast between 1990 and 1996, and it's still just as beloved today both by those who watched the series when it was first broadcast and new fans who encounter it for the first time via reruns and streaming networks. Between its fish out of water set up, endearing yet hilarious characters, and that catchy theme song, the series continues to be as entertaining as ever. Given its continued relevance, it seemed impossible that a reboot could ever do it justice. Then, Morgan Cooper released a trailer on YouTube that presented a fresh new take on the series, maintaining its main characters and basic premise, but taking a dramatic approach to the story, which it set in the present day.

Just a short time later, the trailer was developed into a dramatic reboot and T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson came on board as co-showrunners and executive producers of the new show, which has a two-season order on Peacock. Brady and Newson have collaborated as writers and producers on shows as varied as "Army Wives," "The 100," "Shooter," and "The Chi." They've used that wealth of experience to ensure "Bel-Air" comes to the screen as a fully realized drama that maintains the heart and smarts of the sitcom while reimagining the characters and situations in a gritty and grounded 2022 environment.

Brady and Newson spoke exclusively to Looper about adapting the iconic series, the role Will Smith played in developing the project, and why it was important to dive into debates about class and race from the very first episode of the show.

Adapting, not imitating

What was the process of adapting this incredibly well-known property to make sure it pays homage to the original sitcom but still establishes itself as its own thing?

Rasheed Newson: We were working following the vision of [director, co-writer, and executive producer] Morgan [Cooper]'s trailer, which did that instantly in two minutes. It was taking that sensibility, taking that vision, and applying it to every other character on the board. This show benefited greatly from the fact that everybody who worked on it is a fan of the original series. We speak that language, we know these characters. In a way, we've been carrying the genesis of this show in our hearts for more than 30 years, and so we brought that to everything we did when it came to this show.

T.J. Brady: Yeah, and the key was not to ever imitate, but to take inspiration and apply that inspiration in the here and now, 2022 America. That gives us the best chance to not fall into parodying ourselves and actually making a show that people enjoy.

Working with Will Smith

Will Smith is one of your executive producers. What kind of input did he give during the development given this was so different from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?"

Brady: The biggest thing he did was put his stamp on the vision Morgan established. Once he said, "That's it, that's the show," there's not a lot of argument. A lot of first year shows struggle for an identity. "Who are we? What are we going to be like? Are we going to do a little more of this, this?" We knew right when we came aboard this project and we had his blessing. That put us many steps ahead.

Newson: There were some sleepless nights as we were casting the show because we were going through dozens and dozens, it felt like hundreds, of auditions. When we came to our final choice, that had to go up the ladder and it had to go to Will. We're glad he agreed, but there was fear that he could say, "Actually, no. No, I don't see it." He has tremendous power to support you. He also has veto power. We are very glad he didn't exercise that veto power –

Brady: He has never exercised it.

Newson: — when it came to casting or when it also came to these storylines because, as you said, this is very near and dear to his heart. It wasn't always clear to us in the beginning, if he would be protective of it in a way that might stop us from exploring storylines we wanted to explore. I'm happy to say that didn't happen.

Going deeper with drama

The new show dives into debates about class and race right from the very beginning, which is something that was embedded in the original show but wasn't highlighted as immediately as it is here. Why did you feel this was an important thing to do right from the very first episode?

Newson: It's part of the promise of the drama. The idea of, "You're going to take this story and you're going to ground it and you're going to make it real," we had to address some of those issues right off the bat. Will is coming from West Philadelphia and he's walking into this mansion. You've got to comment on class, you've got to talk about money. You've also got to talk about this family where you wonder, "Why exactly have you been rich on one coast and I've been struggling on another? What family secrets have kept us apart?" All of that is laid bare once you take this on as a drama and we had a responsibility to explore it.

Brady: Yeah.

That was one of the things I was wondering about: we know Will was struggling on the opposite coast, but it didn't seem like he had really had any contact with the Banks side of the family for a long time. Is that something that will be explored more deeply as the season goes on?

Brady: Absolutely. That's one of greatest pieces of inspiration that the sitcom gave us unknowingly. Why didn't they talk? No one asked that question in the sitcom, they never talked. He met them in the pilot, and coming into it, a drama asks the question behind the laugh or the smile to get to really what was at the root of the reason that they never spoke. We are going to explore that this season.

New episodes of Bel-Air are available on Thursdays on Peacock.

This interview was edited for clarity.