‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion’ provides emotional moments and a surprising amount of closure

Will Smith serves up nostalgia and sheds a poignant light on the show that launched his career

'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' cast have reunited to mark the show's 30-year anniversary. Will Smith / Instagram 
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"Revolutionary, hilarious and poignant," says Will Smith, when asked to pick three words to describe the hit sit-com, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which helped propel his career.

The show, which ran from 1990 to 1996 on NBC, was a huge hit during its original network run, and has since become even more popular in syndication all over the world.

It’s now receiving special retrospective treatment in the form of reunion show available on HBO-Max.

At a little more than an hour in length, the special manages to be both predictable and surprising all at once.

There’s a look back at the early episodes and the casting process, with the reunited cast watching old clips and laughing at some of the awkwardness.

Even Will Smith seems surprised when he’s shown a clip from the pilot episode, where he appears to be miming along to everyone else’s lines.

“That’s terrible, oh wow that’s terrible to watch,” he exclaims in the special, while his fellow cast members laugh.

Alfonso Ribeiro, who played the endearing Carlton Banks on the show, is also shown clips from his audition, where he appears to be dressed in relatively underwhelming clothes.

“I don’t know how I got that job,” he says in disbelief, while watching the clip.

The whole cast is back for the reunion, with Smith and Ribeiro joined by series regulars Tatyana M. Ali (Ashley Banks), Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks), Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey Butler), Daphne Maxwell Reid (Vivian Banks) and recurring co-star DJ Jazzy Jeff.

The only cast member missing is "heart of the show" James Avery, who played patriarch Philip Banks. Avery died in 2013, and the cast pay touching tribute to him, bringing tears to everyone on set.

"James Avery was this six-foot-four, Shakespearean beast," says Smith of his late co-star, "and I wanted him to think I was good."

The reunion also manages to examine some of the trailblazing aspects of the show. Ribeiro recalls how he made it a habit to “break the fourth wall” and speak with the audience, which was sort of unheard of at the time.

“Never before had those moments been on TV,” he says.

“That was a serious no no,” recalls Will Smith, echoing Ribeiro’s sentiment. “You didn’t break the fourth wall in sitcom television.”

Both Ribeiro and Smith insist the strategy paid off in building a long-term connection with the audience.

Will Smith and James Avery in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'. NBC
Will Smith and James Avery in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'. NBC

“That relationship with the audience, they were in on the joke with us,” recalls Smith.

The retrospective special also contains plenty of behind-the-scenes videos that help illustrate just how much energy there was on the set.

Videos show cast members talking to the live-studio audience, working the crowd, and playing music before the show.

“People would come to the taping like they were going to a club and it was a full-on experience,” recalls Smith.

Archive clips also show the cast members picking up and playing various percussion instruments to psyche up the cast and crew before each show.

“The energy that it created was amazing,” said Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played the role of Vivian Banks from season 3 to 6.

As for the original cast member who played the role of Vivian Banks, Janet Hubert, the retrospective offers some closure.

Smith makes sure to make amends for how he handled a long-running feud with Hubert, who takes part in the special.

“This has been tough,” said Hubert to Smith, finally reuniting for the first time since she was dismissed from the show, prompting producers to re-cast her role.

Hubert proceeds to tell Smith that she was in an abusive marriage at the time, contributing to her mercurial personality on the set.

“The cast had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I wasn’t unprofessional, I just didn’t know who to trust.”

Smith and Hubert make amends during the special, and it’s one of the more moving moments in an already emotional retrospective.

While all the Fresh Prince cast members have moved on to have vastly different careers since the show, they share a sense of surprise at how popular the show has become all over the world.

“I think it’s bigger now than it was then,” recalls Karyn Parsons, who played the role of Hilary Banks.

“It has become legendary, it has become something really, really special,” Ribeiro adds.

This is not the only way the show's creators have marked the 30th anniversary. The Los Angeles mansion that served as the set for the show was turned into an Airbnb for five nights only, back in October.

Airbnb described it as having "bold graffiti art, posh interiors and timeless family portraits". It adds that Philly cheesesteaks were served on silver platters to "transport guests to the lap of luxury", however, "auntie and uncle are not included".

From September 29, groups of up to two Los Angeles County residents were able to book one of five nostalgic stays. They checked into Smith's wing of the home for only $30 (Dh110) a night.