What up, fam? It’s ya girl, Nikkie.
Today, I’m going to talk about Grown-ish, the Freeform spin-off of ABC’s Black-ish. If you don’t know anything about the latter, it follows a well-to-do black family, anchored by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as parents Dre and Bow, that’s constantly redefining what it means to be black in America today. Grown-ish follows Dre and Bow’s eldest child, Zoey, to her freshman year of college.
I have a lot to say about both shows, but I’m primarily going to focus on Grown-ish and why it’s ultimately not for me. If you’re curious about my thoughts on its predecessor, check out this piece I wrote for a different website a few years ago: “Now I’m Feeling ‘Black-ish'”.
As a bit of background to the experience that led to me watching Grown-ish:
There was an episode of Black-ish last year, “Liberal Arts,” that served as the backdoor pilot for the spinoff. This was before I knew what the term “backdoor pilot” was, so I just thought it was a really random episode that followed Zoey at her freshman orientation. Come to find out, maybe a few days later, it was setting up the fact that she was getting her own show (on a separate network).
I had mixed feelings. Zoey—the seemingly perfect, beautiful, popular, fashion-forward child of the Johnson family—never felt like the most interesting character of Black-ish. To me, the show is a vehicle for Dre and Bow to understand that their children’s black experience doesn’t (and shouldn’t have to) match their own. It even funnels up to the way Dre and Bow interact with their own parents (Dre’s mother and father live with them, essentially, and Bow’s parents are an interracial hippie couple). Rarely did it feel like the kids’ individual stories were the driving force behind the show, even when/if their stories were prominently featured. I can’t speak perfectly about this because I’ve only seen each season once, but my most prominent memory of Zoey is during the episode on police brutality, when Junior wants to go march and she freaks out because she doesn’t want him or anyone else in the family to be hurt. That’s one scene from who knows how many she’s appeared it, and that’s the only one that sticks.
I feel like that says a lot.
However, because I support Black-ish and felt like it was important to do so on multiple levels, I figured I’d watch Zoey’s spinoff. That being said, I didn’t plug in the second it started airing. I think I left five or six episodes pile up before I began watching (slash before I realized it was streaming on Hulu), and then I binged them all.
What I found was . . . odd.
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The first episode of the show is intentionally Breakfast Club-y, taking place in a midnight class and setting up all the main players in this new series. Unlike The Breakfast Club, the cast is much more diverse: four black students (three of whom are girls), a light-skinned guy whose ethnicity I can’t place, a Jewish bisexual girl, a Hispanic Republican girl (though she mostly only appears in flashbacks throughout the episode), and a drug-dealing Gujarati Indian guy who is a first-gen college student. Wow, did they hit this show with the diversity stick multiple times or what?!
As things progress throughout this first season, I was continually struck by how unlike my experience in college the portrayal is. There’s abundant casual drug use—Zoey develops an Adderall habit—a crazy amount of drinking, and a lot of casual sex. I would never try to imply that none of this happens in real life, but it seems a little ridiculous that ALL the characters we follow in this show are part of that world. You’d think that Ana, the group’s Republican, would have a few more objections—especially because she had a really embarrassing drunken moment that caused a quickly resolved rift between her and Zoey (who are roommates). But no. Everyone is totally on board.
The only time it’s presented as a problem is in the last episode I watched, “Who Gon Stop Me.” In this episode, Vivek, the drug dealer, becomes THE guy on campus to get your supply from. It opens with the main crew thinking that Vivek was killed, only to discover in less than a minute that it was actually the former campus supplier (his girlfriend shot him). It seemed like everyone brushed off this whole situation, instead beginning to focus on the increase in campus security—and also being wrapped in a “passing around the flu” subplot . . . Whatever. The only one who seems really bothered by the danger of Vivek’s world is Zoey. She keeps trying to get him to tone down his drug dealing, and he keeps refusing—even (a bit rightfully) throwing her Adderall habit in her face. Eventually, he’s beaten up by some random guys and ends up in the hospital. Instead of realizing that he’s in over his head, he hires a classmate to be the point person of his operation and Zoey, heartbroken, abandons her Adderall. (By the way, I don’t think you are supposed to just dispose of drugs in a trash can . . .)
I just couldn’t get behind this episode. If Zoey is supposed to be the typical college student—and I’m suspending my disbelief here on that because I doubt the average college students looks or acts like Zoey—are we really supposed to believe it’s that easy to be friends with someone who deals drugs to the entire campus and not get caught up in that world? I was adjacent to the drug scene in high school because of the guy I dated, but I couldn’t tell you who dealt because we kept that part of his life separate from our relationship (mostly). If anyone I knew in college was a drug dealer, it certainly never came up in conversation. I knew one recovering drug addict, and I only knew him because of my minor (which was studying substance abuse and addiction). So for Grown-ish to imply that this is a super casual, everyday occurrence is something that seemed off.
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With that in mind, I paused. I decided not to watch any of the upcoming episodes in order to really sit with myself and explore whether this show was meant for me.
Now, I would never say that shows are only for their intended viewing audience. I feel like TV execs have really vague, broad groups that they’re hoping to engage with, and sometimes an entirely different population is the one that ends up falling in love with the show. (See: My Little Pony and all those adult dudes who are obsessed with it.) So to that end, my “Is this show meant for me?” question was already a little complicated.
But at the same time, I think there are certain beats within a story that only resonate as truth for a small percentage of people watching. And for a show to be successful, there shouldn’t be an overabundance of plot that only certain people within the larger target audience can connect with. If the Grown-ish showrunners are looking to engage college students and/or semi-recent graduates, they’re losing everyone whose college experience doesn’t look exactly like this. The larger beats that should resonate with everyone—romance, friendship, making bad decisions—are way too bogged down by the specifics of the plot—juggling two guys from your friend group at once and not just being honest about your intent to be casual, drug and alcohol abuse, apparently never going to class. It’s really hard for me to imagine that a typical college student could plug in to this show and think, “Wow, this show has really captured my struggle.”
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It makes me think of something that came up in a meeting at work the other day. There’s a difference between telling someone their story and engaging in their story. Grown-ish feels like it’s trying to tell the world what college students’ lives are like instead of talking to actual college students and hearing what stories they actually want told.
It’s like how a horribly insensitive ad can get released to the world, and everyone is like, “Wow. If just ONE person from [insert marginalized group] had been in the meeting room, this never would have gotten the green light.”
Additionally, I feel like there should be a BIT of story disruption because if art and life imitate each other, shouldn’t we display the situations we hope will play out in real life? The best subplot in Grown-ish to me—really, the best thing about Zoey as a whole—was how intent Zoey was on getting an internship with Teen Vogue. This was a seed that had been planted back in Black-ish; Zoey takes fashion very seriously and wants to make a career out of it. How fantastic! Showing a young (black) girl with a dream and the determination to see it through. In the Teen Vogue episode of her show, we see her working and smiling and being praised for her capabilities. (Then she fucks it up, but that’s neither here nor there.)
WHERE’S MORE STUFF LIKE THIS FOR YOUNG ADULTS?! It’s one thing to tell someone to reach for the stars and another to help them find the ladder. If we want kids to have drive, we need to show them what it looks like—and portraying it on TV shows they watch is one step in that process. (Shouldn’t be the only one, but this IS a review of a TV show.)
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Long story short, I won’t be finishing Grown-ish. For what it is, I think it’s accomplishing its goals. It’s a mostly light-hearted show that really wants to point out every single “young millennial” situation that could possibly happen. But just like how Degrassi went too far in “going there,” it feels like way too much to place on a single friend group without having some more realistic plots thrown in. At the end of the day, it’s just not what I’d want from a show about college. I’d rather just watch the last two seasons of Boy Meets World* again.
If you’ve been watching Grown-ish and have any counterpoints, hit me up in the comments or reach out on Twitter. I’d love to hear an argument for redemption. But until then . . .
May your streaming service be commercial free (if you’re into that),