We’re four episodes into Peacock’s buzzy original series Bel-Air, and one thing is for sure: this isn’t the Fresh Prince we grew up with. Whether you’re loving the modern take on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or are still pining for the good ‘ol days, you have to admit that Bel-Air and creator Morgan Cooper are peeling back the layers of the characters that we knew and loved in an astonishing way. In this more dramatic reimagining, we’re able to get a fuller understanding of the Banks family as well as the circumstances that shape their very distinct personalities. And Bel-Air isn’t afraid to go there when unpacking these beloved characters. Case in point, the reboot’s multi-dimensional spin on Carlton Banks (played by Olly Sholotan), which reveals the dark side of being a Black one percenter in the city of angels.
When we first encountered Carlton (brought to life by Alfonso Ribeiro) in the 1990s, he was a spoiled rich kid and a tryhard with a superiority complex. Uptight and kind of annoying, he was clearly a foil to his cousin Will’s (Will Smith) happy-go-lucky, cool persona. Eventually, however, we grew to truly love Carlton; underneath his prickly, uppity demeanor was an adorable affinity for Tom Jones, a fierce love for his family, and a heart of gold. Carlton was a piece of work, but ultimately, he was also a good person and someone worth rooting for. If Bel-Air intends to evoke a similar warmness in its audience towards the character of Carlton, it’s going to take a lot of character development because this version is — without mincing words — insufferable. The writing on the new series takes Carlton’s worst traits from the OG, magnifies them, and frames them within a modern context. Every story needs a villain, and, for better or for worse, Carlton is ours. Thankfully, Bel-Air readily provides a multi-layered insight into its bad guy’s origins.
Bel-Air follows much of the same formula of Fresh Prince, but the new series injects the plot with a heavy dose of drama. In this version, the Banks family are somewhat removed from the conservative, right-wing politics of their predecessors; think Black neoliberals who campaigned and voted for Barack Obama twice (and will never let you forget it). Carlton 2.0 is a direct result of that upbringing. Although he’s not the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush stan of yore, his personal beliefs are still tinged with just enough conservatism to keep him out of touch with the reality of Black people living outside of Beverly Hills. Nevermind the fact that he was born into the lap of luxury, Carlton fully believes in the American dream, bootstraps and all, and he has no problems extolling its virtues to all who will listen.
We can (and do) hate this version of Carlton, but it’s hard to blame him knowing the full picture — life ain’t easy, even for the other Prince of Bel-Air.
Even more striking than Carlton’s eye roll-inducing politics is his ongoing conflict with Will (Jabari Banks), which is revealed to be so much more layered than what we got to unpack in Fresh Prince. In Bel-Air, the cousins’ friendly rivalry isn’t all that friendly. From where Carlton is standing, Will poses a significant threat to the cushy life he was born into. As the star player on the lacrosse team, the student body president, and one of the richest kids in his prep school, Carlton is actually…popular (gasp), but Will’s sudden detour from Philly throws a wrench in his plans to rule the world because his cousin’s coolness is just as potent, albeit the polar opposite to his own. Complicating things further between the two is their mutual affection for Carlton’s ex-girlfriend Lisa (Simone Joy Jones), a star swimmer who has a lot more in common with Will than she does the guy she actually dated. In response, Carlton works overtime to make things difficult for his cousin, doing everything from publicly humiliating him to even being an unwitting accomplice in a dastardly drug setup that could have landed Will back in jail.
Suffice to say, Carlton is bad news. But is that really all that he is?
Early reviews of Bel-Air have been notably critical towards the show, taking specific issue with the direction that the Peacock remake has gone in with the formerly charming character. Still, as incensed as we are by Carlton’s new tepid politics and his burning anger towards Will, this jarring character interpretation does make a lot of sense. After living a life of being The Only One (if you know, you know), the idea of another cool Black guy showing up out of thin air to steal Carlton’s thunder and his girl is understandably devastating. Will’s very presence in Bel-Air is also cause for alarm, given the fact that he was only able to escape jail time in Philly thanks to some shady dealings by Uncle Phil that could have serious consequences for the rest of the family. As if he’s not carrying enough stress, Carlton’s mental health issues seem to be coming to a head, too; episode five of Bel-Air reveals the severity of his self-medicating with Xanax as a response to the mounting anxiety of trying be the picture of Black excellence at all times and at all costs. We can (and do) hate this version of Carlton, but it’s hard to blame him knowing the full picture — life ain’t easy, even for the other Prince of Bel-Air.
The best, most compelling characters are often villains, and Sholotan’s Carlton is no exception to that rule. Sure, this is Will’s story, but his beef with Carlton is fueling much of the narrative. The more that Will finds his stride in Bel-Air, the more his cousin comes apart at the seams, and Carlton’s downfall is actually one of the more compelling parts of Bel-Air’s already dramatic plot, a credit to the actor bringing his story to life. Sholotan flexes his acting chops in each scene, expertly depicting a tightly wound Carlton who's just barely keeping it together between each of his sardonic comebacks. General consensus? Carlton is the worst character on Bel-Air right now, and that just means that Sholotan is doing his job.
Two things can be true at once: Carlton is a nuisance, but he’s also a character that we simply can’t peel our eyes away from whether out of pure hatred or genuine concern. However, much like the lovable dork that came before him, that doesn’t mean that he can’t be redeemed down the line. There are five more episodes left of Bel-Air, so there’s still more time for a dance break to the tune of “It’s not Unusual” to turn the tide. Hopefully, this Carlton has some moves stashed away.
New episodes of Bel-Air are available for streaming every Thursday