No one knows who they are when they go to college. All freshman are confused, wide-eyed savanna creatures on spindly legs moments away from a full panic sprint. It’s practically a universal truth. (A true thing about me: I applied to college as a physics major. It lasted one class.)
It’s also the premise of Freeform’s grown-ish, a spinoff from black-ish on sister network ABC, which follows the oldest Johnson child, Zoey (Yara Shahidi) as she navigates life as a freshman at California University of Liberal Arts, away from the nest of parents Dre and Bow (Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross). Zoey’s personality was never entirely defined within black-ish, but Shahidi is a magnetic actress — a spinoff seems like a natural fit here — and the tone — single camera, light hearted, a gentle touch with serious issues — feels pitch perfect for 2018 when stories about what it means to be young and black and female are essential.
The premise for grown-ish was more-or-less established through the episode of black-ish called “Liberal Arts,” a backdoor pilot that left the Johnson family unit to see Zoey through college orientation. It was that episode that introduced Chris Parnell as a dean of students and found a way to shoehorn Dre’s co-worker Charlie (Deon Cole) into Zoey’s storyline, as the professor of a midnight class that Zoey, for some reason, has to take.
It’s those ties back to black-ish that really weaken the first grown-ish episode: Cole’s presence feels like an unnecessary safety blanket. It’s never quite explained, adequately at least, why he’s a professor with no qualifications, or why Zoey and her gang of soon-to-be best friends were forced into the class (all through a series of mishaps that involved being late to registration. Someone tell grown-ish that registration all happens online now. And no one would force someone to take a weird midnight digital marketing class if they didn’t want to — this is a major university, with a lot of classes).
Aside from the Community-esque gang of misfits who will no doubt become Zoey’s best friends — bisexual Jewess Nomi (Emily Arlook), twin track stars (Chloe and Halle Bailey), a Jaden Smith-type pothead (Luka Sabbat), a low-key drug dealer (Jordan Buhat), and a hot woke sophomore (Trevor Jackson) — the rest of the classroom is filled with adult derelicts, which doesn’t ring true to the college experience.
Just as Deon Cole’s character seems ripped from a different show (because, well, he is), Chris Parnell’s Dean Parker seems to pop up indiscriminately to offer some funny buffoonery before disappearing, completely detached from the rest of the goings on at Cal U.
But hey — that’s freshman year. The transition is never easy. The good — Shahidi, her chemistry with Latina Republican roommate Ana (Francia Raisa, of the Selena Gomez-kidney donation), the snappy dialogue — far outweighs the bad, most of which just feels like an awkward adjustment period, baby fat to be easily outgrown.
As its name implies, grown-ish isn’t entirely there yet, but it’s well on its way. A–