Adderall. Sexual fluidity. The financial exploitation of college athletes. Safe spaces for marginalized student groups on campus. Dating in the age of social media. These are perhaps not topics viewers expected from the ABC “Black-ish” spinoff “Grown-ish,” which debuted on ABC’s youth-focused Freeform channel. And yet, during its debut season, the show has tackled all of these complex issues and more. In the process, the show proved that taking the show to Freeform was exactly the right decision for its writers and young stars. In a year when youth are mobilizing around the country — and seem just as comfortable supporting Parkland anti-violence activists as they are being one of Kylie Jenner’s 106 million Instagram followers — “Grown-ish” has distinguished itself as the show America’s teens need (and want) right now.
As bold as “Black-ish” has often been in its plot choices, it’s still relatively safe. It is mature and respectable. It usually crosses lines the right way, touching upon uncomfortable discussions like politics, race or family planning cautiously and respectfully. Patriarch Andre Johnson, an advertising executive played by Anthony Anderson, and his superwoman wife Rainbow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, deal with issues that may present themselves differently — or not at all — in the life of their oldest child, Zoey, and her generation.
Instead of running from the complexity of today’s world — where young people can be both “woke” and self-conscious — Freeform's showrunners succeed by embracing it.
“Grown-ish” has found a way to highlight the ways young people are struggling to find their voices without criticizing their penchant for oversharing or selfies. Instead of running from the complexity of today’s world — where young people can be both “woke” and self-conscious, motivated but materialistic — Freeform's showrunners succeed by embracing it. This may technically be a spinoff, but it has distinguished itself by not being the show parents think young people should watch, but, rather, the one they want to watch. Indeed, the series' two-episode premiere in January was “Freeform’s biggest comedy series launch since 2012,” according to Deadline; the show was quickly renewed for a second season.
Yara Shahidi is one of the biggest reasons for this success. Though she only recently turned 18, her acting credits already span a decade. As AV Club's Erik Adams noted in February, “Grown-ish” has given Shahidi “a chance to soak up a spotlight that’s harder to find when she’s sharing the screen with Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne, Jenifer Lewis, and Anthony Anderson.” And shine she does.
And then there’s Shahidi's amazing “crew”: black revolutionary and crush Aaron Jackson (Trevor Jackson, previously known for playing Kevin LaCroix on “American Crime”), awkward roommate Ana Torres (Francia Raisa from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), sexually curious and outgoing Nomi Segal (Emily Arlook), questionably enterprising Vivek Shah (Jordan Buhat), brash track stars and twin sisters Sky and Jazz Forster (Beyoncé musical protégés Chloe x Halle), and the creative, other main love interest Luca Hall (real-life Gen Z influencer Luka Sabbat). This eclectic, multiracial group is tailor-made for its audience — and totally believable. Thrown together by the adventure that is college, they try their best to be there for each other without sacrificing their own individuality.
As great as all these elements are, “Grown-ish” also owes a lot to packaging. Freeform is ABC’s official youth channel, having relaunched with a new name and new mission in 2016. Had “Grown-ish” aired on the broader ABC, I highly doubt the same show would have soared. It just doesn’t speak the broader ABC language. Try imagining how the show's recent “Crew Love” episode — driven by a Drake album used as a metaphor for this generation’s fear of real intimacy — would have resonated with a broad network audience. “Grown-ish” just breaks too many network television rules.
Unlike series like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” a dark exploration of teen suicide, “Grown-ish” doesn’t take itself too seriously even as it tackles serious topics.
Unlike series like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” a dark exploration of teen suicide, “Grown-ish” doesn’t take itself too seriously even as it tackles serious topics. Presumably this is a nod to its target demo, again rendering it less a depiction of what parents think (or hope) their kids are doing in college and more like what many young Americans are actually experiencing there. (Hence, there’s a lot of hanging out — and hooking up — and not quite so much classwork.)
Not surprisingly, the show showcases plenty of classic teen plot lines. Zoey is the “it” girl viewers either want to be when they grow up, or wish they had become. And the series finale promises to reveal which of her three paramours she will choose (her first college love Cash Mooney, a basketball star, wants a do-over after breaking her heart). But really, it's Zoey's journey over the past season that counts the most. And I’m certain “Grown-ish” fans, young and old, are just as thankful as I to have been along for the ride.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer and cultural critic. Her work has appeared on The Root, NBC BLK and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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