Grown-ish, the Black-ish spinoff, sets out to explore contemporary social issues, this time through the lens of the Millennial college experience.
The January 3rd kick-off featured the first two episodes of the series. Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi)’s undergraduate antics feel both familiar and foreign, and certainly can serve as a jumping off point for tricky talks about the early college experience, just as Black-ish does for tough conversations about race.
Black-ish sitcom audiences will feel immediately at home — the cold open features annotated stock footage cutaways as well as the sobbing, melodramatic Dre that viewers know and love from the parent show. But the cinematic language of the show is speaking to a younger demographic. Zoey directly addresses the camera like it’s Facetime, as opposed to her father who narrates his show only in voice-over. Important moments are punctuated by filtered freeze frames. Flashbacks feature an old-school rounded TV frame. The effect is almost like watching a friend’s Snapstory.
Does Grown-ish pull a few of the punches that would be knockouts on Black-ish? Maybe. But the story told on this show is Zoey’s and her experiences and affronts differ from her father’s. The issues covered in the first two episodes have less to do with racial politics and more to do with universal early college stumbles — the complexities of female friendship, social status, and how to prioritize between papers and parties. Some subtle racial and political commentary reminds the audience this is a Kenya Barris show. Zoey describes the campus “lame spot” which is revealed to be a booth for Young Republicans featuring “Build that Wall” graffiti. There’s a joke about a cereal called “Rachet O’s”. Zoey’s crush Aaron is a member of the BSU and sports a variety of buttons for the causes he champions, including Black Lives Matter. Aaron is a character that could be equally at home on Dear White People.
It’s difficult not to compare Grown-ish with the Netflix series Dear White People. Both are spin-offs, both feature young women of color coming of age in a contemporary university setting, and both pair comedy and social commentary. But unlike Dear White People, whose protagonist Samantha White is complex, flawed, and defined, Grown-ish is helmed by a character who has undergone little change in Black-ish’s four seasons. Zoey Johnson started and remained the smart, popular, favorite child in the Johnson family. The only place for the coolest girl in the room to go is down, and Grown-ish so far offers more gentle dips than freefalls. This high school queen bee got to where she was by knowing the freaks from the geeks — and knowing to stay away from them. Zoey’s newfound drone class friends quickly turn on her when they learn she ditched a puking classmate at a party. In this experience, Grown-ish captures the fear and finality of coming of age. Every decision feels like the most important one a person could make, and every new pain feels the worst because it’s the first. Zoey’s guilt over having made her first “adult” decision in the wrong direction is overwhelming and overpowering.
The first episode follows a Breakfast Club framework. It’s an interesting choice, because the John Hughes classic is a movie about high school, although these characters are in college. On the surface, it likely has to do with roping in Gen X parents who happen to be watching along, but upon a closer look, the choice to parallel the iconic teen film is reflective of the demographic that Freeform — rebranded from ABC Family — is trying to reach. Late millennial viewers and under are experiencing a prolonged adolescence. They were the ones to coin terms like “adulting” to describe their imposter syndrome experiences. This generation feels younger than those who proceeded it, so early college feels a lot more like late high school.
The second episode deals with time management, and performance-enhancing drugs. Zoey thinks Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Judge Judy, and her stalking of a cute guy is not helping her learn the difference. So, like a lot of college students, she tries Adderall and goes into a shopping spiral rather than working on her paper. It’s charming to see flashes of Bow’s nerdiness and Dre’s wacky dramatics show up in Zoey, in this episode, and the previews for future ones reveal that both her parents continue to make cameos.
It’s understandable why Grown-ish paired the premier and second episodes. Much of the first episode is exposition. Perhaps a more creative writer’s room could communicate the same information more gracefully, but the cast is winning, the jokes are funny (especially when reoccurring Deon Cole is dead-panning), and the twenty minutes of voice over/flashback introductions move quickly. The pacing of Grown-ish is slower than it’s parent show, though no less worth a watch. Grown-ish and Black-ish have a parent/child dynamic. Grown-ish inherited some of the qualities viewers will recognize from the parent series, but also has unique traits that it will develop alone.
Grown-ish continues its 13 episode season Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC Freeform.
Photo and video credit: ABC
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