Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
Have a box of tissues at the ready when you sit down to watch the Fresh Prince of Bel Air reunion on HBO Max.
It’s lovely. It’s moving. The tears flow freely, both for the cast and for those of us at home, as the hourlong special winds through the highs and lows of six seasons of landmark television. And it’s all the more remarkable because the moment you’re done, you can dive right into the HBO Max archives and binge the whole thing.
So when star Will Smith talks about how, in the early run of episodes, he was so nervous and inexperienced that he learned everyone’s lines and often mouthed along with them during filming, you can jump right in and see it for yourself. The reunion highlights some reference moments, but the original document is always only a click away.
Obviously, Fresh Prince is a special show. This new production goes out of its way to highlight that, reassembling the Banks family’s original living room set and bringing back an unlikely participant in Janet Hubert, the original Aunt Vivian actor who left the show after the third season — a decision she made for herself, as you’ll learn — under a cloud of controversy.
There’s love here, is the point. This reunion was assembled to tell the story behind the story of Fresh Prince and its uniquely memorable characters. But it’s the level of care that went into bringing all the important pieces together — the cast, the set, the right clips, the key topics — that makes it work.
It’s so good, in fact, that other streaming services really ought to sit up and take notice. Based on Fresh Prince, HBO Max has this figured out. The long-discussed Friends reunion is still in the works and apparently shooting in March. Any service with that kind of historic programming in its archives should be looking to see which crews would be willing to get back together.
It’s so good that other streaming services really ought to sit up and take notice.
NBC even tried it over the summer, timing a 30 Rock reunion to the launch of its Peacock streaming service. But that one seemed to fizzle out on arrival. Maybe the show is still too recent. Maybe the controversial moments it’s been dinged for in hindsight turned people off. Or maybe, as Variety noted, “the special was more of an opportunity for NBCUniversal to promote NBCUniversal.”
Fresh Prince works as well as it does because it’s just so pure. You can’t simply replicate that in some other reunion, but you can reach for a similar result. Every production that merits this kind of treatment had its own special stories and defining moments. Imagine how much more appealing the Peacock sales pitch would be if subscribers got access to a similarly loving reunion of The Office — an idea that’s reportedly been considered.
This is the edge that network-based streamers like Peacock and CBS All Access have over younger upstarts like Netflix and Hulu. There are deep catalogs of widely beloved, nostalgia-fueled favorites out there. CBS has the likes of Cheers, Twin Peaks, and all the Star Treks. Peacock has Saved By the Bell, Everybody Hates Chris, and Friday Night Lights (to name a few). There are so many winners.
Even Netflix and Hulu have opportunities here. In addition to their own original programming, both services offer legacy programming that isn’t necessarily owned by the network that first aired it. Seinfeld is making a costly leap from Hulu to Netflix in 2021 in a $500 million deal. Wouldn’t it be great if the series’ arrival was heralded by a reunion special featuring the original foursome (plus Larry David, let’s be real)? That would probably lure in some new subscribers.
I don’t know. Watching that Fresh Prince reunion set something off in me. We’ve seen so many similar gatherings in 2020 due to the pandemic. With everyone stuck at home and aching for new and interesting things to do, there’s been an explosion of reunions as hastily thrown together, live-streamed events.
These can definitely be great in their own way. The Mashable entertainment team spent a day collectively screaming over the great Scott Pilgrim vs. the World script read. And throughout the 2020 election season, the Wisconsin Democrats staged blockbuster impromptu gatherings around forever faves like The Princess Bride as an effective vehicle for fundraising.
But the Fresh Prince special immediately raises the bar. It’s possible to do these things with more planning, more production, and make them go from great to unforgettable. Seeing Smith reunite with his old castmates and reminisce over happy times and sad times alike had me bawling openly more than once. That special is the perfect blueprint for a growing subgenre of original streaming platform programming. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion special is now streaming on HBO Max.