'Bel-Air' creator defends Will Smith ahead of Season 2 premiere: 'I've got nothing but good things to say about Will'
Plus, how guest star Tatyana Ali — who played Ashley Banks on the original "Fresh Prince" series — plays a key role in a storyline around a hot-button issue.
It'll take more than a slap to break up the Banks family. Season 2 of Bel-Air — the dramatic reboot of Will Smith's era-defining sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — is premiering Friday on Peacock, nearly a year after the previous Fresh Prince upended his career by slapping Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Oscar ceremony. But even though Smith temporarily withdrew from the public spotlight in the wake of that incident, Bel-Air creator, Morgan Cooper, says the star didn't step away from his involvement in the show's sophomore year.
"Will has been and continues to be a tremendous partner throughout this process," Cooper tells Yahoo Entertainment. "He's been incredibly supportive on the heels of Season 1 and into Season 2."
And that support goes both ways. "I've got nothing but good things to say about Will," Cooper says, calling the actor's Oscar night actions "a very human moment" that hasn't changed his opinion of his collaborator. "Will is a great guy, and he's demonstrated that with his actions throughout the whole Bel-Air development process, back when this was just my short film."
"There's so much happening in the world right now," Cooper continues. "Again, that was a very human moment that took place [at the Oscars], but human moments happen — nobody's perfect, and it's important not to be judgmental. I've seen the content of his character on a day-to-day basis with this crew, this cast, my producing partners, the network and the studio. Day in and day out, I've seen a guy who is committed to excellence and committed to putting people in the position to do their best work. That's been Will since Day 1, and I'm very proud to be in partnership with him."
In the immediate aftermath of the Oscars — where Smith accepted the Best Actor prize for King Richard after slapping Rock — many in Hollywood wondered whether the actor's upcoming projects might be put in stasis while he worked to re-enter the industry's good graces. But Apple TV+ ended up releasing his Civil War-era drama, Emancipation, last December and Bel-Air showrunner, Carla Banks Waddles indicates that the second season was never in any serious jeopardy either.
"The show has taken on a life of its own, and has become important to so many people," says Waddles, who replaces outgoing Season 1 showrunners, T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson. "There are so many reasons for it to be successful, so that didn't concern me at all."
Waddles also echoes Cooper in saying that Smith's support was felt behind the scenes throughout production on Season 2. "He's still very supportive of this show, and we're still able to tell stories with his character and all of the original Fresh Prince legacy characters. We still have the freedom to do what we want to do creatively and tell stories that are important to us."
As in the first season, Bel-Air's second year is filled with stories that speak to the current tenor of the times. One hot-button thread that runs through the first three episodes, for example, concerns a new teacher at Bel-Air Academy, where West Philly transplant Will (Jabari Banks) studies alongside his Banks family cousins, Carlton (Olly Sholotan) and Ashley (Akira Akbar). The educator in question is Mrs. Hughes, played by Tatyana Ali — who played Ashley Banks on the original Fresh Prince series. Now, Ali is taking the new Ashley under her wing and guiding her education with extracurricular readings that speak to the Black experience beyond what's taught in school.
Waddles says that she and the writers conceived of that storyline over a year ago, but it's positively prescient in light of recent headlines out of Florida, where the state's governor, Ron DeSantis, has taken aim at the College Board for its curriculum for an A.P. course in African-American Studies. "When those reports started coming out, it felt so validating," Waddles notes. "Our story was already locked and loaded, and then suddenly this becomes national news. We didn't plan it this way, but it made us feel good to realize this is a story worth telling and a conversation that is still going on."
Cooper is even more pointed in his feelings about how art happened to imitate life this season. "There are people in this country who want to suppress our voices and our history," the Bel-Air creator says. "It's up to us to bring these issues to the forefront. I'm very proud of how we told that particular story this season, and hope that it can inspire more conversation to bring about change."
It's also appropriate that young people are driving that change on Bel-Air, since most of the news coverage of the Florida battle focuses on the machinations of adult politicians and teachers, rather than the kids who want to be learning this history. "You've got people who are becoming relics and who have backwards perspectives trying to determine the future for young kids," Cooper agrees.
"So often in this country, kids' rights are diminished; and kids are really sharp these days. They have information and they have date, and they're seeing around the corner far more than older people are. It's up to young people to take action and we illustrate in the show how to — in the words of John Lewis — cause good trouble."
Waddles adds that there was special resonance in having one Ashley help another get into a little good trouble. "Tatyana was the perfect person to tell that story," she says. "It was very poetic for the O.G. Ashley and our Ashley to fist-bump each other in a scene. That just felt so special."
And Ashley's education will continue as Season 2 unfolds. Last year, the youngest Banks child revealed that she was attracted to girls in a storyline that inspired some debate among the show's fans. Waddles teases that the character — who rings in her 13th birthday in the season premiere — will have her first experience with queer love over the course of the next ten episodes.
"We're so protective of little Ashley," she says, laughing. "I'm a mom myself and part of me doesn't want to see her dating anybody or kissing anybody — I just want her to remain little Ashley! But yes, she will get to kissing someone at some point, because that's what teenagers are doing."
"It's very important to show that representation," Waddles adds. "It just felt right for that character, and Akira plays it so wonderfully. It's a natural place for her to be — telling the story about what a young girl looks like in that world when she's living her best life out loud and having a family who supports whatever that is for her."
Watch our interview with Morgan Cooper on YouTube below:
Season 2 of Bel-Air premieres Friday, Feb. 24 on Peacock.