Sending your kids off to college is hard. The rules are all different because they’re not yours. Even when you’ve packed them everything you’re sure they’ll need, they still have to learn to stand up on their own. But first, they have to fall.
Grown–ish, the new to Freeform spin–off to Kenya Barris’s hugely successful comedy Black–ish, follows Zoey Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, to and through college—much to her parents’ chagrin. From months of buzz, right up to the eventual premiere, Grown–ish seemed to have everything going for it. The cast is one of the most diverse to see primetime, the script is about as liberal with its swearing as it is with its truth–bombs. And with Shahidi—whose personal voice has provided a platform for issues spanning Palestine to puberty—at the show’s helm, it’s hard to see how anything could really go wrong.
But wrong everything goes. Not always, but often enough that, with five episodes under its belt, I can’t shake the feeling that Grown–ish’s growing pains might actually be evidence of a fundamental flaw. It’s true that Grown–ish has a lot to balance: a cast of eight freshmen each trying their hand at self–definition; Charlie Telphy’s recurring appearance as Zoey’s marketing professor—forever linking the show to its Black–ish origins; and the addition of newcomer and Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell, whose performance as fictional California University’s Dean Parker is stellar—despite feeling like the after–thought to every episode. Even with what seemed like a fool–proof recipe for success, the show’s incomplete efforts at defining itself make for a comedy that isn’t actually all that funny, or at least not yet.
Though I hate to think that the second–hand embarrassment woven into the plot was meant to bleed into the actual fabric structure of the show, from my perspective as a real–life college student, Grown–ish’s flaws look uncannily familiar. Could it be that Grown–ish mirrors the plight of its young characters as well as actual freshmen in trying to take on too much, way too soon?
Too much, too soon is surely an issue that can work itself out once Grown–ish finds its groove. In episode two, Zoey tackles the issue in her own storyline as she dabbles in using Adderall to complete an assignment that seems, in a word, insurmountable. She later finds, however, that the laser–like focus provides its own problem. This episode is the first time we see Zoey use drugs even recreationally, and in the ensuing spiraling we watch her glean life lessons that don’t move the plot forward a ton—but at least promise that a PG–13 rating won’t be what halts Grown–ish’s evolving self–definition. Comparably, A Different World, the often–compared Cosby Show spin–off which, like Grown–ish, follows the family’s eldest daughter Denise off to college, doesn’t find its stride until Denise has already left the show. For Grown–ish, it may be too soon (or too late) to go as far as cutting characters, but each of them—including Zoey herself—will need to grow into their vague outlines of ‘revolutionary,’ ‘track star,’ and ‘woke’ to have any true staying power. As for the rest of the narrative content, it’s weird that Zoey seems to meander through all standard qualms of college freshman life, aside from their consequences which never hit as heavy as they should.
Grown–ish just needs to learn what we all learn in college: maybe you really can do it all, just don’t do it all at once.