The news that the upcoming Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot will not feature a returning Will Smith in the role that made his name is understandably causing controversy. However, despite the absence of Smith, the new version of the hit 90s sitcom is actually better off without the superstar. While the Independence Day and Men in Black superstar is an intrinsic part of the series, any reimagining needs to be able to stand on its own two feet without relying on his presence.
When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air first hit screens in late 1990, Smith was still a relatively unknown commodity as an actor. The star was then best-known as a rapper, having enjoyed modest success in the late 80s. However, over the course of the original series’ six seasons, Smith went from niche figure to bonafide superstar. The show itself was based around a fictionalized version of Smith living with his wealthy aunt and uncle in the salubrious Californian neighborhood of Bel-Air. Episodes would frequently juxtapose Smith’s street-smarts with the sheltered existence of his cousins, especially Carlton (played by Alfonso Ribeiro). The show quickly grew a devoted following and became one of the era’s biggest hits.
On the one hand, The Fresh Prince as it was in its first incarnation simply wouldn’t work with anyone else in the lead role. The fact that the entire premise was based around a fictional version of Will Smith himself means that it wouldn’t make any sense for anyone else to be involved. Conversely, however, in order for the new series to succeed on its own merits, it’s almost essential that Smith isn’t involved. Only with a new Fresh Prince to focus on can the reboot step out of the shadow of the original and do something new and interesting with the story.
There are two key reasons why replacing Smith was a must for the series. Unlike the original show, the reboot – titled Bel-Air – will be a much grittier, more dramatic retelling of the Fresh Prince story. Given this dramatic tonal shift, hiring a new actor for the lead role makes perfect sense. Tonally, seeing Smith try and take the iconically free-spirited character in a dramatic new direction would be jarring at best and down-right weird at worst. This way, the showrunners are free to completely reimagine the narrative.
The second important consideration is the series’ chronology. Since the new interpretation of Bel-Air will focus on Will’s roots before arriving at the Bel-Air community, it doesn’t make sense for the 52-year-old Smith to revisit his character. Visually, the idea of an actor struggling to play a teenager three decades after first taking on the role would undo any sense of drama that the showrunners are trying to foster. By replacing Smith altogether, they can create an entirely original story that remains just as relevant as the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series. Even though the idea of a show without Will Smith will be anathema to some, it’s clear that it’s the only way to make this new vision work.