Sunday, February 4, 2018

Grown-ish: Smart, Funny, and more than merely Serious-ish

Trevor Jackson and Yara Shahidi in Grown-ish.

Grown-ish has been a weekly delight in my household since it first premiered on January 3. As a regular viewer of Black-ish, I’ve known about the college-set spinoff of ABC’s hit family comedy since last May, when its (literal) parent series aired an underwhelming backdoor pilot for the show near the end of its third season. It wasn’t the weakest episode of Black-ish’s otherwise strong season – that award goes to its cringe-worthy season premiere, set awkwardly within a half-hour advertisement for Disney World – but outside of spelling out the broad situation and setting of the new series, which would follow the Johnsons’ eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) to nearby fictional Southern California University, it gave few indications what was to come. But as we approach the midway point of Grown-ish’s “freshman” season (the 7th of 13 episodes airs this Wednesday), a couple of things have become clear: the first is that Yara Shahidi (who has been capably playing her own age since she was introduced as a 14-year-old in 2014) has proven herself wholly capable of helming her own series, and the second is that Grown-ish has quickly developed its own tone and voice, already making it much more than a Black-ish side project.

Created by Kenya Barris and Daily Show alum Larry Wilmore, Grown-ish shares Black-ish’s pedigree, with Barris currently serving as showrunner for both shows. The many charms and strengths of Black-ish have been detailed here before, and the now-veteran comedy continues to reliably mix fun and topicality, e.g., this season’s Hamilton-inspired fourth-season premiere with its Emancipation-themed musical numbers. And so Grown-ish showed up with a pretty large – and still growing – legacy to live up to.

Grown-ish has a simple premise, following the challenges faced by Zoey in a new social and academic life after graduating from a high school where she shone, almost effortlessly. (Her high school yearbook quote: “I came, I saw, I mastered this bitch.”) She quickly falls in with a textbook diverse group of students thrown together Breakfast Club-style by their enrollment in a midnight class taught by Black-ish’s Charlie Telphy (played again by Deon Cole – more on him below). We meet the chill Luca (Luka Sabbat), the too-cool-for-school campus revolutionary™ Aaron (Trevor Jackson), the twin-sister track stars Jazz and Sky (real-life non-twin sisters and R&B duo Chloe and Halle Bailey, who also perform the show’s opening theme), the first-generation hustler Vivek (Jordan Buhat), and the bisexual and generally non-conformist Nomi (Emily Arlook). The ensemble is soon rounded out by Zoey’s roommate, the devoutly Catholic and seemingly sheltered Ana (Francia RaĆ­sa). I did hesitate before listing them this way, because on these terms it’s easy to dismiss the cast of characters as one designed by a Hollywood lab to tick off all the right boxes. But after a largely stage-setting first episode, Grown-ish has demonstrated that it is more than willing to subtly undercut many of the expectations that we bring to the situation. (A recent scene springs to mind that, entirely in passing and without much remark from the rest of the cast, lets us know that for all her outward innocence Ana is much more sexually experienced than the more socially outgoing Zoey, for example.)

Rather than becoming fast friends, after six episodes the group still has all the awkwardness of new acquaintances slowly getting to know one another, unsure if they trust or even like one another. Even for this Generation-X viewer, who can only faintly recall his own first year of college almost three decades ago, the often blunt and unaffected interactions of these freshmen feel pointedly true to life. After all, barely eighteen years old, and only recently – and not entirely – out of the shadows of their parents and home communities, they hardly know who they are themselves. This rawness is mirrored by Zoey’s regular fourth wall-breaking addresses to the camera that are appropriately intimate and self-aware – offering access to a flawed and insecure version of her character that was largely unavailable on Black-ish.

The cast of Freeform's Grown-ish.

College is a contested ground for growth and maturation, simultaneously offering regular opportunities for self-reinvention, and a social fishbowl that threatens to make any one decision both first and final – all the more so in this age of Instagram and trenchant campus politics. Though the situations they face on the series are hardly groundbreaking (late-night hook-ups, the pressures of tests or school athletics, the ubiquity of drugs and alcohol), the sympathy and general restraint with which Grown-ish approaches these (mostly) freshmen lets us take their age-appropriate struggles as seriously as they do, without any resorting to melodrama or condescension. (Take, for example, its second episode, whose main plotline centred on Zoey’s first-time experimentation with Adderall as a ‘study aid’, a storyline that ended casually open-ended, without clear consequences or any lessons learned – and whose realism only landed for me days later during the next Black-ish episode, when I discovered that I had to deliberately tamp down a newly palpable awareness of the dangers faced off-screen by their absent daughter in order to relax into the safe domestic world of the Johnsons’ suburban home.)

Grown-ish also plays with juxtaposition of the caricaturish and the real that its parent show has perfected in three and a half seasons – and here is the one place the new show is experiencing some growing pains. As with Black-ish, there are some characters whose internal lives we are not supposed to take seriously. Chris Parnell (Archer, Saturday Night Live), as the put-upon Dean Parker, seamlessly slips into the only real “adult” role on the series, and though his character inhabits much the same cartoonish position that Dre’s co-workers (especially Charlie, Dre’s boss Leslie, and Leslie’s grown son Connor) play on Black-ish, we’ve already been given at least some indication that there’s something going on there. Charlie, on the other hand, whom we meet solely through his surreally incoherent lectures, remains too solidly two-dimensional and (despite his clear spin-off appeal) continues to feel like a visitor from another series – which, of course, he is. (This is no fault of Deon Cole’s performance, which is as hilarious as it is distracting.)

What is remarkable about Grown-ish among spin-off series is that you don’t really need to watch the parent series in order to love the child. Black-ish, from its title through its seasonal arcs, has drawn attention to questions of race and economic status; it has a clear mandate. But Grown-ish, like the not-quite-formed-characters that populate it, is fuzzier around the edges. Grown-ish is about the young people we are, or were, or know and love, and about the ambiguity of identity and individuality – revealing things about the characters and about ourselves at the same time. What it has done remarkably well in only six episodes is to give us a host of young people whom we only half-recognize, whom we may fear for, and whom I am confident we will enjoy getting to know for seasons to come.

Grown-ish airs on Wednesdays on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the U.S., and on ABC Spark in Canada. Soon after its premiere in January, it was renewed for a 20-episode second season. (Fingers crossed that we don’t get a Spring Break episode in Orlando!)

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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