Tag Archives: Jabari Banks

My Favorite Performances of the Year (So Far)

The more content we have, the more our “to watch” lists rack up shows that we may never get to touch. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to have more than we can find time to watch than too little, but it’s important to share those series and performances that move us. Sometimes we find these where we don’t expect.

I’m not a big TV comedy watcher, in part because I prefer shows that are willing to tread into the absurd. That hasn’t been the style the last decade. When we’ve standardized even the mockumentary format, we need to find new approaches before it’s tired out. Yet this year has shown a tendency to do just that, not just navigating into far more absurd and satirical waters, but also changing formats and genres on the fly without worrying about whether each half hour forms a complete thematic arc.

There are so many other performances this year that don’t make a list like this. When you highlight the individual, you can overlook the ensemble, and “Abbott Elementary” boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. (I know I just complained about standardized mockumentaries, but this one shines through the format.)

Similarly, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has no weak spot in the cast. Anson Mount may be trying to make himself my new favorite captain in the franchise, but as “Star Trek” often is, the show is a resounding group effort.

I didn’t really dive deep into voice acting, but I do have to highlight Rie Murakawa’s work as the gender-expansive Osana Najimi on “Komi Can’t Communicate”. Few convey the balance of care for others with the pure, willful chaos that she does.

There are also those performances that might not ask their actors to stretch too far because that’s not what the show needs from them in that moment. They’re examples of perfect casting nonetheless. I think of Hazal Kaya’s charismatic light mystery turn as Esra in the Turkish “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian and Jordan L. Jones’s Jazz on “Bel-Air”, and Alan Ritchson’s Jack Reacher on “Reacher”.

There are several performances I want to highlight even more than these:

Emmy Rossum, “Angelyne

You could dismiss Emmy Rossum’s performance in “Angelyne” as that of playing a ditz, but this would overlook an incredibly complex role. The story of an 80s celebrity famous for being famous is described through various conflicting recollections. These different perceptions, including Angelyne’s own, each change who she is and her path to celebrity.

There’s a scene where Angelyne sits down with Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. He’s surrounded by an entourage of women, and Angelyne counters with her own entourage of men – both retinues are only there for show. He wants her to pose nude, but it quickly becomes clear he’s outclassed. He’s part of an old-fashioned misogyny that trades fame for ownership and exploitation. She’s pioneered the trade of exploiting celebrity itself, without the need to answer to someone like him. It’s here that her ability for negotiation, cutthroat attitude, and business acumen all bite, where her airhead presentation gives way to a keen understanding of Hollywood and how to beat men at their own game.

Don’t get me wrong – Angelyne comes off in many other situations as a narcissist and manipulator, but not because she’s a sociopath. She ditches who she once was and embraces a celebrity persona as an escape from abuse, itself a re-enactment of generational trauma. Her performance serves as both a critique of New Age commercialism and the influencer culture that evolved from it, and an understanding of the desperation that drives people to chase it as a survival mechanism. That Rossum’s performance utilizes camp as well as drama lends a stunning flexibility to the series. Rather than portraying someone who’s conflicted, she portrays someone who conflicts us: she’s deserving of our horror and judgment as well as our empathy and admiration.

Jabari Banks, “Bel-Air”

The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is good, and it does the difficult, thought-out work of adaptation well. Do we need a second take on “Fresh Prince”? How could it not ruin what came before? Won’t it complicate my nostalgic understanding of the character to have a completely different actor play him? I lament this difficult question so much I can barely pay attention to movies containing anywhere between three and seven Spider-folk.

“Bel-Air” updates many things that wouldn’t be said on TV in the early 90s, advancing conversations about racism into today’s media and political climate. At the show’s heart is Jabari Banks’s performance of a young man who’s torn between versions of who he wants to be, who both admires and resents the wealth that suddenly surrounds him and is wary of the self-hate that social acceptance in white circles demands of him.

Banks captures so many of the tics and nuances in the actor Will Smith’s original performance, while still giving his interpretation of the character Will Smith. You can emulate someone else’s performance with nods to their movement, but Banks encodes it into his performance in a way that feels much more natural and internal than an acting nod. The characters don’t just act similarly, they think similarly. “Bel-Air” leans on a strong cast with a number of good performances, but Banks’s is a captivating interpretation that drives the show.

Barbara Liberek, “Cracow Monsters

Barbara Liberek in "Cracow Monsters".

“Cracow Monsters” is a Polish horror series that’s more fantastique than fantasy. Based on Polish folklore, the series hearkens back to the moodiest and most atmospheric habits of 90s horror with quick and harrowing bursts of action. Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who fears the onset of schizophrenia and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She’s revealed to have a power that can help hunt otherworldly creatures, and grudgingly works with a group of similar students.

Alex’s curiosity, earnestness, and frustration are balanced against a tendency for self-destruction and isolation. She wants to survive, but is so afraid that she’s on the cusp of repeating her mother’s mental illness and suicide that she also wants to destroy herself in what time is left to still control her own fate.

Liberek realizes a character who’s dreaming yet terrified her dream is doomed, rushing against the clock to become a doctor before the onset of schizophrenia. She takes care of others, yet aggressively rejects anyone attempting to aid her, lest they get invested. She couldn’t care less about helping anyone hunt demons until her curiosity drives her enough to tolerate having to work with other people. Alex is the kind of standoffish, matter-of-fact, justifiably resentful noir character that women rarely get to play, but Liberek realizes her in both humanizing and iconic ways.

Claudia O’Doherty, “Killing It”

Claudia O’Doherty possesses that rare Madeline Kahn ability to exist in the show’s story so completely that she’s naive to it, while at the same time sitting outside of it and pointedly commenting on it. It’s one of the toughest demands in comedy because it asks the actor to simultaneously portray two extremes that each comment on the middle ground where all the other characters live.

O’Doherty achieves both the character and the meta extremes, whether it’s fulfilling a dead man’s last wish by eating his identifying information, or dragging a bag full of dead snakes through a convention hall where the wealthy con their worshippers. She delivers an outsized portion of the absurdism in “Killing It”, while existing inside of it as someone who’s completely normalized to it.

One of the midseason episodes, “The Task Rabbit” involves O’Doherty’s Jillian housesitting in a mansion, and coached by Zoom call to pretend she’s rich and cutthroat for a wealthy date. It’s an acidic take on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that becomes a half-hour of modern science-fiction as pointed as anything I’ve seen this year. It entirely relies on O’Doherty’s ability to comment on the story even as she suffers it.

You may also recognize O’Doherty as Stede Bonnett’s wife Mary in “Our Flag Means Death”.

Kheng Hua Tan, “Kung Fu”

“Kung Fu” is an important show, but not necessarily a great one. It’s the kind of CW fare where you can drop in on an episode and know everything that’s going on in the first three minutes, chiefly because all the characters repeat it over and over again. Nonetheless, I love it, in large part because its cast is so incredibly charming.

As their kids run around having adventures, it’s the parents played by veteran actors Kheng Hua Tan and Tzi Ma who anchor often-poignant B-plots. The main plot about artifact trails, all-too-convenient clues, and insta-hacking can get very silly, but they often serve as an opportunity to open up points about Chinese history in the U.S., racism, and fighting gentrification.

Preserving one’s culture in a society determined to assimilate and re-purpose it hides traumas both historical and personal. Where Tzi Ma’s emotionally open Jin abides and understands, Kheng Hua Tan’s Mei-Li is more intense and guarded. Those scenes when she opens up enough to speak about her own history provide some of the clearest and most resonant moments happening on TV.

Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death

“Our Flag Means Death” lets director and Oscar-winning writer Taika Waititi stretch his legs as an actor. His improv and comic timing are impeccable. On the surface, his character of Blackbeard is a man for whom nothing is a challenge anymore. He’s grown numb to life, and wants to retire and enjoy his wealth. Yet this numbness hides something else – a growing attraction to the incompetent gentleman-pirate Stede Bonnett.

Paired with Rhys Darby’s Bonnet, Waititi’s Blackbeard offers a lens on two ways that men are taught to deny their homosexuality. In Stede’s case, it’s trying to fit into a suffocating heterosexual lifestyle – acting the part in regards to wife, children, place in society.

In Blackbeard’s case, the metaphor is that of suppressing who he is through a psychological self-mutilation, an inwardly turned hate and cruelty that bubbles to the surface and has to find other targets beyond himself – thus reinforcing the expectations of who he should be and how he should act.

Stede is an escape from that, but both struggle to escape the cages of expectation they’ve lived in most of their lives. They’re each expected to act a certain way, and do massive harm to themselves and those around them just to keep up the facade. To find each other and accept who they are is a kindness for both of them and their communities. That this is presented so well in the storytelling of a satirical sitcom is remarkable. Waititi is surrounded by an excellent cast, but it’s his performance that gives the series its pace and rhythm.

Minha Kim & Youn Yuh-jung, “Pachinko

Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung play young and elderly versions of Sunja, in a story that follows her family across half a century. “Pachinko” uses this family as an opportunity to look at the Korean diaspora, some of which fled Korea during a brutal occupation only to suffer more hate and racism in Japan and the U.S.

Kim and Youn (along with child actor Yuna) realize the same woman across half a century, keeping and evolving mannerisms, showing how physicality changes without losing what makes that physicality unique. The way each glances, considers a silence or speaks before thinking, the way each enters a space, looks out for someone else or forgets to…it’s all the same person. It’s all the same character in a way that goes beyond two actors finding something shared. There’s an essence on-screen, something that we talk about when we think of movie magic, that these two actresses evoke.

There’s no suspension of disbelief needed. They’re the same person. In the emotional, gut reaction we have as viewers, there’s an instinct in me that would sooner believe they’re the same person across decades than that this could possibly be a character played by different actresses. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever felt that before.

Alan Tudyk, “Resident Alien

“Resident Alien” might be the best thing SyFy’s managed in years and years. The comedy about an alien who’s crash-landed and has to live among the humans he was sent to destroy had a strong first season last year. This year’s been a little more up and down, but Tudyk’s performance continues to be a comedic goldmine.

The evolved-octopus-out-of-water story asks Tudyk to be doing outlandish physical comedy constantly, and the man hasn’t hit a wrong note. The series is edited for a sense of irony, and this only helps. It’s the kind of show where it would be very easy to chase a joke that doesn’t work. Very occasionally, it will do that for some of the other characters. The series centers on Tudyk’s Harry first and foremost, though, and a live-action series anchoring itself to this much physical comedy is nearly unheard of today. That’s because it needs someone with Tudyk’s skill to pull it off.

Bridget Everett & Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere

The way these two characters appreciate and speak to each others’ unique way of looking at the world – and their anxiety at not finding a place in it – helps them find a joy that’s otherwise blocked.

Stuck in small town Kansas, and struggling with a rural environment that often feels claustrophobic, Jeff Hiller’s Joel is the only person around who treats Bridget Everett’s Sam as if she’s somebody admirable and worthy of notice. It’s not a romance. Joel is gay and he has a boyfriend, though the rest of the town is so willfully blind to this fact that they all just assume it’s a “corrective” romance for both.

Their friendship opens up a level of acceptance and self-acceptance that both have trouble finding elsewhere. It enables them both to not just help each other up, but to foster the beginnings of community within a community where they’ve rarely fit.

Andrew Garfield, “Under the Banner of Heaven

I opened my “Under the Banner of Heaven” review by calling Andrew Garfield a beautiful performer. The crime scene that opens the show is horrific – you just don’t ever see much of it. We see its corners and edges, but we never leave Garfield’s Detective Pyre. It’s his reaction, the plaintive eyes that he can’t disguise, the bodily shudder, the beginning of erosion in someone’s beliefs played out in his carriage…it tells me so much more about the effect of that crime scene than the goriest image ever could.

It shook me from the beginning. Pyre’s caring but insistent manner is ideal in a detective, and arises from his faith even as it readies to be ripped to shreds by the realizations he’ll make about the brutal, misogynist Mormon fundamentalism he investigates. Pyre’s a walking emotional and spiritual sacrifice, and there are points where even he knows this. Yet he’s played with a care and gentleness that’s more admirable and capable than the blunt, desensitized cops that are worshiped on so many other shows. (The only flaw I find in his performance is how much he looks like Jimmy Carr in this hairstyle.)

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A Resonating, Meaningful Reboot — “Bel-Air”

“Bel-Air” is good. The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is one of the better reboots that’s been made. It’s challenging, and asks you to be more open to the meaning of the original than to its style or sense of nostalgic comfort. It establishes a strong story on the foundation of some superb performances, and it also holds a reverence for what came before that strengthens its argument for being made in the first place.

Like the original sitcom, “Bel-Air” follows Will, a 16 year old from West Philadelphia who offends a gang and is sent across the country for his safety. Under the care of his rich aunt and uncle, he now lives in a mansion in Bel-Air, trying to stay true to himself amid the privileges, luxuries, and expectations of the ultra-wealthy Banks family.

At first glance, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” might seem like one of those franchises that has no business being remade. The original 90s sitcom was about as perfect as it could be – a hallmark of comedy on television, with an entire cast’s worth of memorable performances. Yet looking at “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” solely as comfort food that shouldn’t be changed or challenged risks overlooking some of its core messages about race, class, and privilege.

We tend to think something that’s good shouldn’t be remade, but the original premiered 32 years ago, and it was so good and had so much to say that a lot more got left on the table. We’ve got more than 400 years of Shakespeare remakes in every imaginable medium, and still get excited when a legendary actor decides to rethink his most recognizable plays. We’ve got 50 Batmans and forked out chunks of change mid-pandemic to go to theaters just to see a multiverse of Spider-Mans – I think “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” can stand being told two whole times. Let’s move away from the fainting couch on this one.

Remakes are like anything else – they can be good, bad, or average. A big part of what makes them successful is the same thing that makes an original story successful: does it have a reason for being? Does it justify having been made? In the case of remakes, does it understand and process the themes, tone, and spirit of the original in a way that demonstrates it’s effectively done the work of adaptation.

“Bel-Air” has done the work of adaptation. It clearly understands the Banks family’s motivations and conflicts. It escalates these in ways the sitcom didn’t because it was a 90s sitcom. Yet at its core, these are effective translations of the characters and story. It also accelerates characters to different plot points: we’re already at the point where Hilary is being forced out of the house, Vivian is thinking about restarting her art career, and Phillip is mid-campaign for district attorney.

It took time to get to all these moments in the original series, but that boasted 148 episodes. An hourlong streaming series today doesn’t have that longevity by design, so it makes sense to find these characters further along in their development than they were allowed in the sitcom.

“Bel-Air” leans hard on the initial conflict between Jabari Banks’s Will and his cousin Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. Carlton is harder-edged here. He’s not a nerd joke anymore, but a young man who’s had way too many expectations placed on him, and has developed anxiety, a toxic guardedness, and an aggressive way of lashing out. Wary of Will taking up space in his family and gaining popularity at a school where Carlton is…perhaps more feared than admired…Carlton continuously rejects Will and treats him with hostility.

There’s a good reason for escalating this conflict so much. The original series examined Carlton’s desperation to fit in and to be read as white. Carlton had blind spots to racism even when it was directed at him, and so he sought the approval of systems and structures – a sort of guest whiteness that made him defensive of these systems even as they considered him lesser. “Bel-Air” takes that further, and makes Will’s presence a call-out for how much Carlton has traded for that approval. Early on, Will confronts a white student singing the N-word along with a song, and Carlton defends him. At every turn, Carlton is quick to use racist stereotypes to insult and demean Will. Carlton turns racism against Black people into his own weapon that he uses in an attempt to embarrass Will and corner him into a specific role at school.

I can see the criticism that some of this departs the original Will-Carlton dynamic, but to my mind, it investigates a core issue between them with far more depth than the original could as a 90s sitcom. This was a dynamic between them, but in playing it for laughs, it had to be selective about its moments to become more dramatic. As a straight-up drama, “Bel-Air” can just tackle it without having to shy away from its ugliness.

It is not the same thing, but as a Hispanic boy growing up, I did a lot of shoving my Mexican side down and trying to act white, be accepted as white. I practiced a sort of internal violence on myself that was routinely reinforced by racist bullying, white-dominated media, and very few outside my family who could speak to that kind of experience. There is a lot in the Will-Carlton dynamic that hits home, and Carlton’s desperation to be accepted as white and hostility at Will for having the gall to be Black echoes enough similarities to speak to that little kid who spent years hating half of who he is. The contexts of being Black or being Hispanic in the U.S. are very different for those who aren’t both, so I don’t mean to compare the two. Rather, the way that systemic racism teaches and reinforces internalized violence in marginalized groups shares some similarities that can be recognized from group to group. Call it overdramatic if you want, but the conflict between Will and Carlton here is one that exists, that is real, that often plays out with a brutal internal emotional violence, and that viewers still don’t get to see represented very often.

This conflict gives “Bel-Air” a clear and incisive window for critiquing how racist systems indoctrinate even those who are victimized by them. If people think it’s more important that Carlton is a 90s vision of a nerd joke than it is that Carlton is a look at internalized racism, then they won’t be happy with this adaptation. I just think the one is antiquated style; the other is relevant meaning.

Jabari Banks is an absolute find as Will. He embodies so much of the raw vulnerability that Will Smith originally showed in the role. There is absolutely no way to not feel for him in this performance, to not be on his side and want him to succeed. There’s less consistent bravado, but it’s there. In a drama, we see more of the character’s emotional state than a sitcom allows, so we’re more on the side of his vulnerability than on any type of comedic acting. If it keeps up, Jabari Banks’s role as Will ought to be remembered as one of the best performed of the year. The fusion of Smith’s emotion and mannerisms to a character who firmly exists on his own is an at times awe-inspiring performance.

Jazz is beautifully portrayed by Jordan L. Jones here. He meets Will in L.A. as his Uber driver from the airport, and the two quickly become friends. Jazz makes immediate sense as someone Will can be himself around without any of the pressures or conflicts present in his life with the Banks family. They have a shared outlook of the world, seeing L.A. as an alien landscape they have to survive within. His business card may include several different jobs including private investigator, but Jazz knows himself and is centered in the tumult of L.A. This creates trust between the two, as Will is anything but centered, and you can plainly see why they’re friends. It’s a simple but beautifully effective take on a character who was essentially a very good, but very one-note, joke in the original.

Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian Banks is stellar. She feels so incredibly close to Janet Hubert’s original portrayal of the role (before she was replaced by Daphne Reid), and is probably the closest to the original character in the cast. Vivian exemplifies the ability to adapt and code-switch through different crowds and situations that Will so sorely lacks. At the same time, her early conflict with oldest daughter Hilary demonstrates how she expects her children to choose a way of being that denies them access to that same freedom in adaptation. It’s a distillation of the original’s conflict between parents and children: Vivian has kept who she is and where she’s come from intact, but she projects her own form of internalized racism onto children who she expects to conform and negotiate core values away.

That brings us to Hilary, brilliantly realized by Coco Jones. Where she was a ditz joke in the original, Hilary reveals a lot more of the capability early on that she showed later in the sitcom. She’s a moderately successful influencer whose brand is centered on cooking, but who rejects the jobs that ask her to tone down her Blackness and traditional recipes. This comes into direct conflict with Vivian’s desire for Hilary to conform to be successful, even though this is something Vivian resents in herself.

Jimmy Akingbola’s take on Geoffrey is gorgeous in the limited scenes where we’ve seen him. The house manager for the Banks family is capable and observant. The 90s got a lot of mileage from snarky butlers, and Akingbola’s Geoffrey has his moments, but he’s less prim and proper and more of a smooth operator, noticing a bit of everything and living more of his own life.

Adrian Holmes plays Phillip well and April Parker Jones grounds the show even as it takes off running as Will’s mother Vy. We also see Simone Joy Jones as love interest Lisa, and Akira Akbar as youngest daughter Ashley Banks – though she hasn’t had a lot to do yet outside of getting in some quality digs at the breakfast table. Ashley is the youngest of the Banks children, and Will’s presence had a lot of influence in shaping her on the original series. This is something I hope the remake incorporates. It allowed us to see someone growing up and having someone in her life who gave her a better opportunity to consciously recognize and make decisions about the internalized racism that Carlton failed to dodge.

Make no mistake, the genre here is completely different from the original, but the sensibilities are much more similar than style would suggest. One of the things I resist in remakes is an obsession with nostalgia as recognition. A remake shouldn’t be a theme park tour; nostalgia should serve as an opportunity to compare this moment to that one. There are a number of early nods to the original, such as characters repeating a popular phrase, but these are quick bits here and there that never become the focus.

“Bel-Air” is absolutely centered around exactly what I want a remake like this to do: compare that moment to this one, to look at the distance traveled – or lack thereof, to use what we can use now that couldn’t be done then, to be direct in its examination of why a remake should even exist in the first place. “Bel-Air” is a bit over-the-top at times, but it earns it.

The pace is quick, with a mind toward music video editing. This pace gets misused on a lot of series, but that’s not the case here. The editing puts it all together in a way that heightens our sense of certain moments, and that capitalizes on the whirlwind of emotion that Will undergoes. It centers Will’s journey on a constant sense of displacement and it intensifies those moments when Will is othered.

That intensified reality also allows some beautifully symbolic moments, such as breathtaking visions of drowning on a throne underwater. This motif is a clear emotional reality for Will, and it calls us out as viewers for where we find ourselves today in relation to the original series’ throne imagery. It directly calls out one of the show’s core questions – whether success in a system built to hold you down can ever be a success, or simply success for a system that will always hold you down in the ways that are most meaningful. It also hearkens back to the displacement of Africans via the slave trade – communities in their own land, many of whom jumped off the slave ships to drown rather than live in slavery. This in turn reflects Will’s own displacement and trauma, a continuing fear of police brutality he’s already suffered, and the question of how much he’ll conform for approval in this new place at the expense of his own self-determination. “Bel-Air” doesn’t use these symbolic moments too often, but when it does it knows exactly what it’s evoking and why.

There are criticisms. The original Philadelphia gang Will upset is still looking for him, and I don’t know if this is an element of drama that’s needed. I trust the show enough to see where it wants to take this.

I hope that it doesn’t overfocus on the fight between Will and Carlton. It takes over the series early. I don’t want them to solve what they’ve established too early or too easily, and it is one of the series’ strengths. It’s more that I also want to have a window on Will’s relationships with his other cousins, Hilary and Ashley.

I’ve seen “Bel-Air” dismissed in a few corners as soap operatic, which I’m very wary of as coded racism. There’s no level of soap operatic drama here that isn’t far exceeded by “gritty” dramas like “Yellowstone” or the eminently produced navel-gazing of a “Downton Abbey”. Yes, “Bel-Air” is incredibly dramatic, but a displaced, brutalized, traumatized child has some damn right to drama. The difference is that “Bel-Air” is a deeply considered reflection on race and class that immediately recognizes and delves into questions of internalized racism and whether success within a racist system takes part in holding others down to achieve it.

I know “Bel-Air” swapped showrunners and I am cautious of the show failing to expand its range to more fully incorporate all the characters in Will’s immediate story, but…so far this is an incredible success as a reboot. It’s what reboots should do: search for the reason why a reboot might be valuable in the first place and then build on whatever answer resonates so intensely it cannot be denied. Cash-in or not, this isn’t something the artists involved are treating that way. This is a brilliant rethink – imperfect, but reaching so far and so determinedly that it finds moments most series are too timid to approach.

You can watch “Bel-Air” on Peacock, which is included on several other services. New episodes arrive Thursdays.

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