SPOILER ALERT! Do not read unless you’ve watched the season finale of Bel-Air on Peacock.
It took a few seasons before fans met Will Smith’s dad Lou in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (played by Ben Vareen). But Peacock’s Bel-Air – like it’s already demonstrated in its first 10 episodes – is nothing like the ’90s sitcom that starred Will Smith in the title role.
In the season one finale of the drama, Marlon Wayans shows up as Lou, the long lost father of Will (Jabari Banks). Before his unexpected homecoming, Will was led to believe by his mom Vy (April Parker Jones) and Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) that Lou abandoned his family; in reality, Lou was serving time in prison and never wanted his son to see him behind bars.
Here, co-showrunners and executive producers TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson talk about the decision to introduce Will’s dad in the show’s first season (the show’s already been picked up for a second year) and the trouble his sudden appearance brings to the family. *
DEADLINE Why introduce the dad so soon?
TJ BRADY Bel-Air is complete reimagining of Fresh Prince and we wanted to upend expectations and not drag it out. Several times throughout the season, Will had made mention of not having a father, and growing up without a dad and how Uncle Phil fulfilled that role. Sometimes he said it to justify self-destructive behavior, other times to explain why he would keep a distance. We wanted to upend audience expectations by having him be challenged, having this man show up again in his life and discover that the story he had been told his whole life, that he had built an identify around, was not true.
RASHEED NEWSON It had to be accelerated because this is one of the things that comes with taking a sitcom and turning it into a drama. In a sitcom you can gloss over the fact that Will was meeting his rich relationships that he had not seen in years. In this one, you have to explain why there was this rift in the family. It’s a natural question, those stories have to come out. When Will was 4, his dad was convicted of a violent crime and he was sentenced to prison, and he told Will’s mother and Uncle Phil, ‘do not bring my son down here. If you bring him down here I will not come out to see him. I do not want him to see me like this. I grew up seeing my dad in prison and I think it messed me up and I do not want to do that to my son. ‘ Uncle Phil and Will’s mother were not able to tell a 4-year-old your dad is in prison and does not want to see you anymore so they let him think his father had walked out. That’s what they are reckoning with it now because his dad is at the doorstep.
TJ BRADY That’s the part that anyone would have a difficult time with. When do we tell him the truth? Maybe there will not be a reason to tell him. One day when he’s grown up maybe he’ll be able to handle it. Seventeen is right on the cusp of youth and adulthood. That was the line they walked and it comes back to create some conflict in the finale.
NEWSOM We are trying to put something together that seems understandable from all sides. I do not think they fully understand the damage they did to Will. In the last two episodes, Will asked if his father was still alive. He’s been carrying around this idea that he’s been dead.
BRADY One of the deeper things we are trying to explore with all the characters is one of identity, and how identity is developed and defined and how it can change. Will had molded his identity, especially in Philadelphia, largely around how he had to step up to fill a role for his mom because his dad was not there and they did not need him.
DEADLINE But the whole reunion blew up.
NEWSOM Will walks out and leaves the mansion. Lou can not accept responsibility for his part in it. He wants to blame a lot of people, and when he starts to bad mouth Will’s mom, that leads to a huge argument. Will will not stand for it.
DEADLINE How did you land on Marlon Wayans?
NEWSOM We knew he would be good but also surprising. There are a lot of people who were the obvious candidates. But we wanted somebody that the audience would react like ‘Okay, wait a minute.’ We wanted it to feel fresh. We did not want it to feel like anyone was reprising a role they had done on another series that was too similar.
DEADLINE Is Wayans coming back for season 2?
BRADY I do not know if he will be a regular but we hope to see him again.
NEWSOM The way it ended, Will and Lou are miles apart. They really do go at it. But in the life of Will, his father has to come back, but he’s not going to be living in LA and someone you see on a regular basis.
* This interview was conducted before Sunday’s Oscars.