2020 has been a difficult year for television (well, for everyone really), with many shows having to take long breaks because of Covid-19, or having to change the way that they create their shows to manage the new situation. Because of this, networks and studios have ended up digging into their back catalogues to fill schedule gaps, resulting in a resurgence of older, popular programmes.
There have been many franchises that have benefited from this, and thanks to Skype and other web chat services a lot of these old shows have been getting their casts back together to celebrate their long history. This has been great for fans, but even the best of these felt like sitting in on a video chat, rather than a proper reunion. However, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion is a show that feels like a real reunion special, one that doesn’t just get the cast together, but does something truly special with it that honours the show.
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The show sees the iconic home of the Banks family recreated in great detail, instantly transporting viewers back to the beloved 90’s show. The room begins to fill with the core group of actors from the series: Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro who played Carlton, Karyn Parsons (Hilary), Tatyana M. Ali (Ashley), Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey), Daphne Maxwell Reed (Aunt Viv from season four onwards), and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
The cast come together on the set and you can tell that this is the first time they’re meeting together here, as their expressions and reactions are filled with joy at not only seeing each other, but being on this set again. It instantly sets a tone for the whole show; it shows the audience that these are people who love each other dearly, and whose time working together meant a lot to them.
Over the course of the episode the group reminisce about their time together, about how working on this series not only changed their career as actors, but how it would go on to change television as a whole, putting a wealthy Black family in the spotlight, where they were able to entertain millions as well as telling stories that touched on important issues. We get to learn how Will came to land the role, in a story that’s so crazy that it’s hard to believe, and we get to see audition tapes from some of the other cast members and find out what it was like getting a part that would forever change them.
“Calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death and its hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.” – Janet Hubert
It’s not all happiness though, as there’s one very obvious person missing from the set. The cast talk about the late James Avery, who played Uncle Phil, and this is when the tears start, both on screen and for those watching. The stories they tell about James are wonderful. They’re moving, and they hammer home how much of a caring, passionate, and impressive man he was, and the montage of clips of some of his best moments will have you reaching for the tissues.
Uncle Phil was the kind of parent you watched on TV during the 90s who not only entertained you, but made you feel like you learnt something. The lessons he taught his kids on the show were taught to children around the world for thirty years, and it made him one of the greatest TV dads of all time, and it makes him not being at this reunion all the more painful.
Eagle-eyed fans may have noticed that there’s another key figure missing from the reunion too: Janet Hubert, who played Aunt Viv for the first three seasons of the show. There have been lots of rumours about why she left halfway through the show, stories about her and Will fighting, some stories that said she was awful to work with, but this reunion finally clears things up when Will and Janet meet to see each other for the first time in 27 years. It’s during this meeting that we finally learn that during the third season, when Janet was pregnant in real life, she was going through an extremely painful home life, and was in an abusive relationship.
This of course changed how she was at work, and Will being a young star on the rise made things worse, despite not knowing what was happening in her personal life. We see here Janet finally make Will face the fact that he acted stupidly, and it damaged her career and personal life.
It’s an emotional, heavy scene as the two of them work through this, but the resolution is so worth it. Not only do Janet and Will finally bury the hatchet, and tell each other they love each other, but she comes to the reunion, meeting Daphne Maxwell Reed for the first time. Viewers get to see both Aunt Vivs together, and see this family finally restored after almost three decades.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion is a celebration of a beloved show, but it’s also a celebration of the cast. It made me remember how much I loved these people, it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it kept me entertained throughout. But more importantly, this reunion was the chance for these people to finally come together, to repair rifts and share their love for each other; for that alone, it’s easily one of the best pieces of television this year, and for many years.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion is now streaming on HBO Max.