Like Denise Huxtable before her, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) is breaking away from her sitcom-family nest.
The privileged yet socially conscious daughter of black-ish‘s Dre and Rainbow Johnson (Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross) is spinning off onto her own series. grown-ish will follow Zoey as she begins her freshman year at the fictional Southern California University. And for Shahidi, the new show means getting a taste of the university experience before she even steps foot on Harvard’s campus as a first-year student herself.
“It’s strange and fantastic,” says Shahidi, 17, who deferred her Ivy League acceptance to star on the Freeform series. “Within five days of shooting, I had gone to three college parties, had ditched my friend, all sorts of stuff!”
Originally titled college-ish, the series began as a backdoor pilot during black-ish‘s third season and was intended for ABC. The move to Freeform precipitated both a name change and a shift to more serialized storytelling in order to fit with the network’s looser style.
“Changing networks was probably one of the best things that could’ve happened to this show because the audience on Freeform is really [who] this is for,” says creator Kenya Barris, who cites The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World and, more surprisingly, the short-lived Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries as inspirations.”The notion of continuing your investment in a character before and after you meet them is fascinating to me. I love those sorts of origin stories that increase mythology.”
And those won’t be the show’s only cultural touchstones. The series premiere pays homage to The Breakfast Club and tracks how Zoey forms a disparate yet tight-knit friend group with her classmates in Professor Charlie Telphy’s (black-ish‘s Deon Cole) peculiar late-night marketing class, which includes Zoey’s crush Aaron (Trevor Jackson), the oblivious Vivek (Jordan Buhat), Zoey’s closest friend Nomi (Emily Arlook), and Cuban Republican Ana (Francia Raisa).
“We have such an interesting group of characters that don’t seem to feel like they would ever know each other if it wasn’t for this class,” says Shahidi. “It kind of goes back to the coming-of-age tale of how much of our experience is shared.”
While the Johnsons will move their daughter to school in a January episode of black-ish, that isn’t the last time we’ll see Zoey with her family (or Shahidi on ABC). Thankfully, there’s a fairly permeable membrane between both shows.
“I have gone to black-ish a couple times, and they’ve come here,” explains Shahidi.
For once, we’re actually looking forward to Parents’ Weekend.
Check out the exclusive first look at grown-ish — which bows in with a one-hour premiere Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. on Freeform — above.