by Moxye Staff
Launching a spinoff from a successful show is a bit like sending a child off to college: No amount of high hopes and preparation can eradicate all the worries.
But when it comes to “Grown-ish,” a Freeform comedy starring the oldest child from ABC’s well-regarded “Black-ish,” those fears are unfounded. There are a few growing pains here and there, but in general, “Grown-ish” is a buoyant, sprightly addition to the television scene. Yara Shahidi takes full advantage of the expansion of her screen time, and the kind of piquant, culturally relevant storytelling that “Black-ish” has honed is on display here too. All in all, “Grown-ish” is a smart, breezy expansion of the “Black-ish” family.
Creator Kenya Barris unintentionally tapped into the mind of “Grown-ish’s” target demographic when coming up with the idea for a spinoff of his acclaimed ABC sitcom, “Black-ish.”
“I saw a meme one day and it said, ‘Where would Zoey go to college?’ I was like, ‘This is a f—ing show.’ That was my lightbulb moment,” Barris said at the “Grown-ish” premiere at Lure Nightclub in Hollywood on Wednesday night.
The image sparked “Grown-ish,” an offshoot following the Johnsons’ eldest daughter, Zoey, portrayed by Yara Shahidi, as she heads to college.
The Freeform series tackles contemporary issues facing college students. “We wanted to make sure we gave as honest an experience of what this walk is as possible,” Barris said. “This is a generation with a lot to say.”
There are some differences, as is to be expected. As Shahidi’s confident Zoey heads off to Southern California University, which is not far from her Los Angeles home, she doesn’t interact with her family much in the first three episodes. The desire to give “Grown-ish” some real independence is laudable, though there is one major connection to the ABC show.
Deon Cole, the hilarious secret weapon that “Black-ish” has deployed in many side-splitting workplace scenes, turns up on “Grown-ish” as an extremely unusual college professor. His character, Charlie, teaches an evening class that actually begins at midnight, and that’s not the weirdest thing about his “marketing” course. The logic of it all doesn’t matter (and his weird teaching style is mined for solid comedy). The point of Charlie’s entertainingly bizarre class is to give the show’s characters an early focal point. As “Grown-ish” offers up an endearing homage to “The Breakfast Club” via Charlie’s eclectic collection of students, “Grown-ish” finds Zoey and her new friends and crushes grousing about their weird teacher, and inhabiting the expected parties, common areas and dorm rooms.
“Grown-ish” offers the creative team a chance to reinvent Zoey Johnson a bit. On “Black-ish,” she’s been a confident, popular teen, one capable of dishing out amusing condescension and chilly judgment. It makes sense that college would rattle her — up to a point. The third episode goes a little too far in depicting her boy-oriented insecurities — it’s frankly a bit hard to buy that her self-esteem would be rattled in such an extreme way by potential rejection, given what we know of her steely sense of self-worth. Also, at times, “Grown-ish” has Zoey directly addressing the camera, as well as offering up narration, two presentation styles that occasionally work against each other.
But in the main, “Grown-ish” entertainingly examines socially conscious, striving young people with both wisdom and wit. As is the case with the mothership, the comedy is willing to poke fun at the pieties of the woke while allowing its characters to sincerely examine their moral choices and selfish mistakes. This version of Zoey comes to regret her devotion to social status in ways that often seem believable, and various other characters are also shown to be either shy, scared or self-conscious under their masks of cool self-possession.
Shahidi is the central focus, as is only right, and she’s deft and winning in the central role. But as it progresses through its energetic opening episodes, “Grown-ish” whets the viewer’s appetite for expanded roles for many of the supporting characters. Early standouts include Chloe Bailey and Halle Bailey as tart-tongued college athletes, Jordan Buhat as an ambitious, sweetly nerdy striver, Emily Arlook as a cynical but game-for-anything sidekick, and Chris Parnell as a goofy if somewhat caring administrator.