'Grown-ish': TV Review

After a 'groan-ish' start, it grows on you.
1/3/2018

Freeform's 'Black-ish' spinoff is about the least defined member of the Johnson family trying to define herself in college, which takes some time.

Go back to the opening season of Black-ish. Kenya Barris' ABC comedy may have taken a handful of episodes to lock onto all of its characters and their voices, but it was a supremely assured sitcom from the beginning when it came to voice and structure. It's a fine example of a TV show finding its footing quickly, an uncommon thing.

Freeform's Grown-ish is an example of something much more common. After watching three episodes sent to critics, I think I can spot the fine show that Grown-ish may be evolving into, or at least latch onto the potential. But as its title is meant to imply about its college-age characters, it's a show that's not quite grown, still trying to make it on its own.

The series is loosely evolved from last spring's Black-ish episode "Liberal Arts," perhaps the show's weakest episode not to involve a corporately mandated trip to Disney World. Then one of the main Grown-ish characters was introduced in a fall episode of Black-ish that was really more confusing than enticing. Finally, the series gets a Freeform premiere that's all exposition and re-establishing the premise and characters, with very few laughs.

That's a long way to go to set up a really simple series.

Zoey (Yara Shahidi), eldest child of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is starting college at California University of Liberal Arts. For reasons introduced in last year's backdoor pilot, but really best not explored or questioned, Zoey is forced into taking a midnight Digital Marketing Strategies class taught by Dre's eccentric co-worker (and Zoey's sister's nemesis) Charlie (Deon Cole), who has no teaching credentials to speak of. For more reasons best not explored or questioned, the class is heavily populated by prostitutes and meth addicts, but also a group of people who will become Zoey's best friends. The pilot tells the story of how sexually fluid Nomi (Emily Arlook), vaguely racist first- generation immigrant and aspiring rapper Vivek (Jordan Buhat), twin track stars Skyler and Jazlyn (Chloe and Halle Bailey), artsy pothead Luca (Luka Sabbat) and campus activist sophomore Aaron (Trevor Jackson) came to be in this midnight class. In short, the point is that produces circumstances that put unlikely groups together and then those unlikely groups can become pseudo-families and here's how the Grown-ish family is different from the Black-ish family.

But as simple as the Grown-ish premise is, the core problem is equally simple.

Building a spinoff around Shahidi makes sense. She's got an ebullient screen presence and she has proved herself, in outside appearances and writing, to be a forceful and intelligent personality.

Building a Black-ish spinoff around Zoey makes logistical sense. Although Black-ish rarely dealt with Zoey's high school life at all, we were vaguely aware that she was nearing graduation and, for that reason, she was the character most easily separated from the core unit.

Building a Black-ish spinoff around Zoey as a character, however, is nearly impossible. Of the members of the Johnson family, Zoey was easily the least defined character after three-plus seasons. I could tell you that she was popular and…ummm...still a good and reasonably responsible sibling whose superficial traits belied hidden depths? Or something? I'd be hard-pressed to thing of anything Zoey ever did that made me laugh? At best she's a straight woman, but I'm not even sure that's definition enough.

So in Grown-ish, Kenya Barris is making a show about college, using college as the traditional platform for issues of identity and personal redefinition, centered around a character who was barely defined in the first place. Early episodes are, then, about Zoey doing things that she describes as out-of-character and making mistakes she never made before and all I could think was that I had a pretty good idea of how Zoey's siblings Junior, Jack and Diane would all act in similar circumstances, but no idea of differences between New Zoey and Old Zoey. Shahidi is good enough to keep Zoey from being an empty space at the center of the show, but she's still a fuzzy central character, a straight woman trying to find ways to be funny. 

Grown-ish isn't quite sure how to use Cole's Charlie, who should be another drawing point for Black-ish fans. On Black-ish, Charlie's almost like comedic spackle. Missing a punchline at work? Have Charlie come in and say something crazy! Things in the Johnson house getting too serious? Charlie can come over and glare at Diane and everything is properly mirthful again. If anything, Charlie's presence in Grown-ish is too structured and strains credulity too much. You can buy, for example, that Charlie continues to be employed at his advertising film because Peter Mackenzie's Leslie is terrified to look too closely at his productivity, much less to fire him. I'm not sure why, but his ongoing status as even an adjunct professor is less plausible? It's a pity that Zoey and Charlie never had any sort of dynamic on Black-ish because a Diane-centric Black-ish college spinoff in a few years with Charlie still as a teacher would have immediate built-in awesomeness.

Chris Parnell, questionably wedged into the story one or twice per episode, occasionally acting oblivious and occasionally offering advice, is underused as well. He's like a vestigial trace of that backdoor pilot from the spring, never really necessary to the story, but still around because the Saturday Night Live veteran is a known quantity. Of the lesser-known quantities making up the young ensemble, the strongest early impressions are made by Sabbat, Jackson and by [Selena Gomez kidney-giver] Francia Raisa, whose Ana is part of the Very Bad Decision that Zoey makes in the premiere.

It's in the third episode that Grown-ish feels like it's finally hitting on a structure and rhythms that are both sustainable and a way for the show, like its main character, to establish its own identity. That episode uses a simple "U up?" text as a jumping point to explore male-female relationship and power dynamics in both college and a digital age, it's both issue-oriented in that way that Black-ish does so well, and an issue that wouldn't be on-brand for Black-ish. It's the first of the three episodes to feel like it's coming from a perspective within that young demographic and not judging silly college students and their juvenile antics. It shows a comedy that, like its main character, is still figuring itself out and a comedy that's trying to find its way.

Cast: Yara Shahidi, Trevor Jackson, Jordan Buhat, Emily Arlook, Francia Raisa, Chris Parnell, Deon Cole, Chloe Bailey, Halle Bailey, Luka Sabbat
Creator: Kenya Barris
Premieres: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Freeform)