Grown-ish Gives Marginalized College Students Something to Relate to.
By: Ryan Douglass
Freeform’s Grown-ish follows Black-ish’s Zoey Johnson after she leaves home and dives headfirst into college life. Following the tradition of Black-ish, Zoey breaks the fourth wall by carrying us through the narrative with a voice that’s immediately accessible and charismatic.
We meet its core characters through a format that reflects The Breakfast Club — a group of misfits end up stuck in a night class together, and find that, by the end of the period that they have more in common than it at first. The group comprises Nomi (Emily Arlook), a character who, in college, can finally embrace her bisexuality, as well as Skyler and Jazlyn (Chloe and Halle Bailey), twins from the hood who have to code switch to maintain an image of “respectability” and keep their track scholarship. Also, in the group are Vivek, the son of Indian immigrants who took to pushing pills to get rich quick, Aaron (Trevor Jackson) the hot sophomore who makes a point of how woke he is 24/7, and the artsy nonconformist Luca (Luka Sabbat). Later inducted into the squad is the conservative-raised, Cuban-American, Analisa (Francia Raisa), who becomes Zoey’s roommate.
Grown-ish’s immediate achievement is in showing how its characters transcend their labels, and function as a friend group in spite of them. It sets us in a world that is distinctly college, where backgrounds and cliques aren’t as discriminating as they are in high school. While Black-ish looked at the social culture of contemporary American Blackness, Grown-ish examines college culture as it affects a range of marginalized people. Differences between the characters are alluded to but not focused on. Identity, rather than being a focal point, is woven naturally into the character’s worlds.
Grown-ish is about what happens when young adults taste freedom for the first time. Early themes include drugs, dating, partying, and hooking up. The coming of age content here is decidedly mature, but the tone comes with a sugar-coating that makes it all feel aged down. The dialogue can feel desperate to pander to young people. Moments like Halle’s awkward likening of Zoey’s relationship to “Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian shit” often does the opposite of what they intend to do.
Zoey herself, particularly in her low moments, adopts a similar synthetic sheen. Her dating life shows her struggles to make things work with three very different young Black men. Refreshing as it is to see young Black love on screen, her inability to navigate these bonds can, at times, feel forced. Through text meltdowns and fights, it’s hard to believe her flaws are enough to alienate any of the guys or ruin things completely. Even when she’s going off on her friends or being self-centered, Zoey doesn’t come across as imperfect as the writers want us to think she is.
Additionally, for all its engagement with the pulse of today’s youth, there are places where the show’s politics remain murky. It indicates its ideology in passing, as in episode one, when Zoey designates the ‘campus lame spot’ as a table where students stand beside a ‘Build the Wall’ banner. The sixth episode shows her shoving a Trump flier in the face of a student handing them out. The tone of its ideology wavers, however, in its paltry looks at queerness. The main story-line of its sole queer character, Nomi, surrounds her struggle to validate the bisexuality of a boy she’s dating in the way she validates her own. It centers the woes of a character propagating that double standard while using the character victimized by it as a punchline, leaving its look at bi-phobic double standards with something to be desired. It’s unclear what the show’s creators mean to state here, or if they mean to say much at all. It also uses its “woke” character (Aaron) as a joke, designating his activist mindset as a performance to be laughed at.
Grown-ish is a comedy though, so it functions best in its lightheartedness. Its episodes meander through darker tones, capturing in its diverse characters how different the struggle of leaving the nest can look. Grown-ish succeeds most in its situational humor and comedic banter, when the writing allows its characters’ personalities to bounce off each another organically. Every episode ends on an uplifting note, leaving its intended viewer with the feeling that despite the heartache and disorientation that accompanies this stage in life, everything is going to be okay. That positivity is what we could use more of on television, especially in shows about an age group that rarely gets to see itself on screen.
The space between teenhood and adulthood is largely overlooked in media, but is becoming increasingly visible. In a recent opinion piece published Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, scientists argue that adolescence now lasts from 10–24, due to a changing economy and transitions in social roles. Compared to previous generations, today’s young adults are delayed in getting married, having kids, and finishing their educations. While our parents were independent at our age, us Millennials tend to find ourselves growing up slower and facing a unique set of struggles that our parents never had to face. The type of jobs and technology we have and use make our experiences, miles different to what our parents had to face. Grown-ish explores that in a way where both young people and older people can understand what the characters are going through.
Though Grown-ish stumbles some in its execution, it fits into the market as a welcome addition to shows about college kids, while also winning for diversity in its reflection of marginalized youth.
Editor: Caleb Zimmerschied