This week’s episode is a dense exploration of achievement culture. Zoey’s generation was raised over-scheduled by well-intentioned helicopter parents. There is intense pressure — from generationally agnostic forms of hierarchy like class academic rankings to modern forms of social affirmation like how many Instagram followers a person has — placed on young people by a society obsessed with comparison and competition.
Zoey (Yara Shahidi) begins the episode by calling out prodigies like Tavi Gevinson (founder of Rookie magazine at age 12), Mark Zuckerberg (dropped out of Harvard to found Facebook at age 20), and Malala Yousafzai (won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 16 for her work speaking out against the Taliban).
The bar feels unreachably high for Millennials, many of whom are still trying to figure out what they want to do when they head to college already feeling behind these incredible achievers. What your friends are up to, from internships to athletic scholarships, is not only constantly available, it’s essentially forcing you to pay attention to it via notifications and news feeds. Young people are inundated with the accomplishments of others, and their own inadequacies amplified. And what about passion? As Aaron (Trevor Jackson) learns when he searches for jobs for “revolutionaries,” personal values and paychecks don’t always line up.
Zoey finds herself tutoring a star athlete, “Cash Mooney.” Cash (Abraham D. Juste) is a prodigious basketball player, recruited by the school with a big scholarship and even bigger expectations. Zoey herself is still figuring out her path and accepts the position in the hopes of achieving her own star status — a recommendation letter from the Dean (Chris Parnell) for a coveted Teen Vogue internship. Things don’t start well. Cash is an hour late to their meeting because he had practice. Zoey tries to ditch him, but he chases her down to explain himself. He’s under an enormous amount of pressure to not only carry his team to the championship, but also pass all his classes and graduate with a degree. He has academic, athletic, and social expectations overwhelming him. Zoey can relate, “I used to run my high school,” she laments to Cash. But now they’re both struggling to find balance. As it turns out, achieving can’t solve all problems.
This episode also articulates a deep inequity faced by D1 college athletes. Universities across the country rake in millions of dollars from star student players who can’t afford a piece of pizza. “A full ride” scholarship amounts to a small fraction of the dividends made by the schools, coaches, and television networks on the backs of these talented and essentially unpaid athletes — many of whom are black, Aaron points out. Lest anyone argue that college sports pave a path to play pro, Grown-ish reminds us that less than 1% of student athletes actually go on to play professionally, via a surreal PSA through the television screen at the bar. Athletes like Cash have an enormous amount of pressure on them to succeed academically, athletically, and socially. When Cash comes down with a case of performance anxiety, he faces enormous social consequences for his perceived failures, and broadcast on ESPN for all his peers to see.
The university too seems ready to give up on Cash because he’s not performing as well as they expected him to. A sportscaster interviewing Cash articulates his own worst fears. The psychological toll this takes on Cash is palpable. His inadequacies in basketball have him giving up hope on his academic prospects too. What is he, if not the MVP?
After a pep talk from Zoey reminds Cash that he’s more than just a basketball player, Cash reminds himself that he’s also a really good basketball player. He sets a school record, proving all the haters very wrong. The school’s attention and the sportscaster instantly come back over to his side. Cash proves loyal, calling out Zoey by her silly nickname “Cup B*tch” on national television.
Somehow amid all of this, the 30-minute sitcom also finds time to address sexual exploration, sexuality, and gender inequity in the bisexual community. With all these issues packed into a tight half hour that speaks the language of a generation and so thoroughly “gets it”, the Twitter consensus is that the show deserves a full hour. Grown-ish is clearly finding its stride, and so far living up to its promises. This is a show that confronts and lambasts the specific world of college students, a show that many Millennials have been waiting a long time for.
Grown-ish, a Black-ish spinoff continues its 13 episode season Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC Freeform.
In case you missed it, read the previous episode review here.
Photo and video credit: Freeform/Tyler Golden
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