TV review: ‘black-ish’ spinoff ‘grown-ish’ is fresh, fun, colorful

The spinoff follows Zoey Johnson to college.

by Jordan McDonald | 1/11/18 12:00am

On Jan. 3, Freeform debuted the first two episodes of “grown-ish,” the highly-anticipated spin-off of ABC’s “black-ish.” “grown-ish” follows Zoey (Yara Shahidi), the eldest Johnson daughter, through her freshman year of college and journey into adulthood. The show is fresh, colorful and fun, featuring a diverse cast of characters and strong writing. “grown-ish” manages to build on the success of “black-ish” while asserting itself as distinct and worthy of anticipation. The show retains many of the core elements that allowed “black-ish” to rise as a critically-acclaimed sitcom on ABC. For example, “grown-ish” also stresses audience education, offering brief insights into character background and historical context, a practice which takes on new meaning as Zoey is tasked with learning who she is, where she comes from and how she wants to exist in the world. 

When news of the spin-off first broke, it quickly became clear that “grown-ish” would have to contend with the impact and expectations set by “The Cosby Show” spin-off, “A Different World,” which focused on an elder daughter  Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) during her time at the fictional Hillman College. Luckily, “grown-ish” is no mere “A Different World” reboot. While it is a college show with a black female lead that makes a concerted effort to tackle topics that are pertinent to college life, including drug use, hookup culture, roommates and class registration, it is also an ode to a very particular generation that has emerged in the decades following “A Different World.” “grown-ish” is unapologetically engaged with pop culture and the way it has informed the generation of young adults born at the tail end of the 90s.

With a nod to “The Breakfast Club,” the first episode picks up when Zoey has to take a night class, where she forms an unlikely bond with a varied assortment of her peers. Faced with an unreliable professor, played by Deon Cole reprising his role as Charlie Telphy, a zany coworker of Zoey’s father, the rag-tag group of college kids begin to share their stories with one another, building a friendship that grounds the series. Alongside her friends Vivek, Aaron, Nomi, Luca, Sky and Jazz, Zoey undergoes a college transition that is a messy adventure filled with some big personalities. Vivek (Jordan Buhat) is a first-generation Indian-American who idolizes Drake and sells drugs to maintain his aesthetic. Aaron (Trevor Jackson) is a student activist who is painfully oblivious to Zoey’s crush on him. Nomi (Emily Arlook) is a spunky “Jewish-American princess” exploring her bisexuality now that she is out from under her parents’ gaze. Luca (Luka Sabbat) is a laid-back, perpetually high “fashionisto.” Jazz and Sky (Chloe and Halle Bailey) are twin track stars trying to overcome their socioeconomic circumstances. Each of them adds to Zoey’s new world, an environment in which she is faced with people from backgrounds completely unlike her own. 

For “black-ish” fans, “grown-ish” is a compelling introduction to Zoey in a position we have never seen her in before. On “black-ish,” her character is relatively consistent in comparison with her siblings. She’s the confident, popular one who surprises the audience every few episodes by offering a brief insight into her inner life while maintaining her glossy exterior. In “grown-ish,” the gloss is finally stripped away as Zoey is thrown into an environment where everything she thought she knew about herself and the world is put to the test. In this way, the spin-off sets out to introduce the show’s ancestral fanbase to a version of Zoey we have never truly met. 

In “grown-ish,” we witness Zoey’s first real mistakes and missteps in adulthood. In the very first episode, we explore Zoey’s cowardice after she betrays her roommate, Ana (Francia Raisa), a Catholic, Republican Cuban-American living outside of Miami for the first time in her life. Preoccupied with impressing upperclassmen, Zoey abandons a vomiting Ana at their first college party, severing the first friendship she’d made on campus. Oddly enough, watching Zoey stumble and reassemble a relationship she’d broken over the course of the episode is what cements the show’s investment in exploring who Zoey Johnson is in ways that “black-ish,” a show anchored in her father’s vision of the world, does not.  

While “black-ish” introduced the world to Zoey as Andre’s favorite daughter, “grown-ish” reinserts Zoey’s voice into the conversation about her character. Passing the narration over to Zoey from her father, “grown-ish” puts her in the driver’s seat of her life. Each episode is a part of her journey in figuring out what direction she will be going next. The show will be a group effort, bolstered by the chemistry of the main cast and the quippy writing that strives to approximate a generation’s angsts, apathies and values. In this way, the show’s title, “grown-ish,” a major improvement from the original title “college-ish,” effectively encapsulates the show’s energy and feel. In a transition from networks and narratives, moving from ABC to Freeform and from Andre’s story to Zoey’s, the show is a major leap within itself, and I believe “grown-ish” and Zoey will stick the landing.