‘grown-ish’ Comes Into Its Own-ish

Posted January 9, 2018 4:45 p.m. EST

The challenge of going off to college is leaving the nest without coming unmoored. This is also the challenge of spinning off a college sitcom.

“grown-ish,” the “black-ish” progeny that airs Wednesdays on Freeform, kicked off its pilot with Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) talking her dad, Andre (Anthony Anderson), through his separation anxiety. (“It hurts so bad!” he cries. What hurts?, she asks. “My soooooul!”)

Viewers of “black-ish” had seen that comic opera play out for a year, as Andre planned to send his first (and let’s be honest, favorite) child away. Reprising it here was an assurance. “grown-ish” would be different, but also the same; it would take some getting used to, but everything would be fine.

In its early episodes, “grown-ish” is enough like “black-ish” in tone and style to please old fans, but not yet as different as it will need to be in the long run.

Zoey is still Zoey, cool and confident, if not as completely together as she tells herself. The show, like its parent, combines universal relationship comedy with social commentary (as when Zoey notes that the founder of her new college “dabbled in slavery”).

What’s different is everyone else. In the “grown-ish” pilot, we meet Zoey’s new friends: the campus activist, Aaron (Trevor Jackson); the “baby Basquiat” artist, Luca (Luka Sabbat); the sexually empowered feminist, Nomi (Emily Arlook); and so on.

The new characters can still use fleshing out. (Aaron and Luca essentially seem like someone took Daveed Diggs’ preachy-aesthete “black-ish” character and split him in half.) Meanwhile, Shahidi’s laid-back, dry performance, a great fit with the more antic “black-ish” ensemble, takes getting used to as the focus of a series.

What “grown-ish” does have from the get-go is a sense of itself and a lot to say. Over the years, “black-ish” used family comedy to speak to the eras of Obama, Black Lives Matter and ultimately Trump. Now “grown-ish” comes along as colleges have become cultural-politics battlefields.

The most obvious comparison for “grown-ish” is “A Different World,” the “Cosby Show” spinoff for Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet). But it differs in ways that reflect the differences between the parent shows.

“A Different World” took place at Hillman College, a fictional historically-black school, reflecting the “Cosby Show” focus on centering American black culture — art, jazz, history.

“black-ish” — acerbic where “Cosby” was earnest — is focused on black identity in relation to a larger, multiracial, multivalent culture. So “grown-ish” lands Zoey at “California University,” a liberal arts school where her classmates include Analisa (Francia Raisa), a conservative Cuban American, and Vivek (Jordan Buhat) the son of Indian immigrants, whose impatience to get rich drives him to push pills.

The story lines are about college hot topics like Adderall use and hookup culture, but difference is never far from mind, both between and within groups. In the third episode, Zoey sarcastically apologizes for keeping two classmates — twin-sister track stars from inner-city Los Angeles — from watching “Basketball Wives,” the VH1 reality series about NBA spouses. “We were watching ‘Big Bang Theory,’ you racist,” one responds.

So far, the writing is the star of “grown-ish,” overseen by “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris: the one-liners are funnier than the characters. An exception is Charlie (Deon Cole), Andre’s eccentric co-worker, who’s been ported over to teach a midnight business class. Cole is a delight as usual, but also a reminder that the show hasn’t entirely cut the cord.

The most interesting parts of “grown-ish” suggest there’s a distinct show here. It’s good-hearted, but with a darker edge, partly owing to the looser language restrictions on cable. (A lot of freshmen curse more freely away from their folks.)

By the second episode, Zoey voices what might be a productive theme: “Ever since I got here, I just haven’t been myself.” She’s not really as assured as she was in high school, and she’s made choices that cause her to question her integrity.

The idea that Zoey is starting to learn who she is, and that she won’t always like what she learns, is one that “grown-ish” can build a series out of. It just needs a semester or two away from home.

Production Notes:


Wednesdays on Freeform.