Drinking? Drugs? Sex? ‘Grown-ish’ Has It All

The new spin-off of ABC’s Black-ish doesn’t focus on higher education policy, but on the student experience.

January 3, 2018
 
ABC
Yara Shahidi as Zoey Johnson in the 'Black-ish' spin-off 'Grown-ish'

Drugs, new friendships, lust for the boy two seats down (and balancing said lust with an equal lust for the boy two seats down from the boy two seats down). These are some of the issues challenging students on a residential campus.

Grown-ish has them all.

Those looking for a discussion on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will be disappointed. Those looking for a Hollywood perspective on student affairs may enjoy the show.

This is the ABC spin-off of the Emmy-nominated sitcom Black-ish, with one of the series’ breakout stars, Yara Shahidi, shining solo.

Shahidi has emerged as a social media powerhouse for Generation Z, the group following the oft-criticized, ever-avocado-toast-munching millennials. She’s charismatic online, much like her character, Zoey, who for the run of Black-ish has helped filter the show’s takes on racial injustice and institutionalized prejudice.

Similarly, the actress has delved into the political world to deliver takedowns on President Trump’s immigration policies. Her father is Iranian and her mother African-American, and she’s given interviews to say the administration’s travel ban on immigrants from some predominantly Muslim countries affected her deeply.

She has also interviewed Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama wrote her a recommendation to Harvard University, where she will eventually enroll -- she took a gap year to film Grown-ish.

ABC has joined Shahidi’s presence with issues designed to enrapture the audience toward which Grown-ish is focused -- the boys and girls watching the youth-oriented Freeform channel (formerly ABC Family).

Previewed episodes capture the new student experience in glossy 20-minute packages, perhaps cramming a lot into the episodes and relying on stereotypes to a degree. But of course, where did these tropes spring from if not a relative kernel of truth -- throwing up after drinking and the late-night, hormone-fueled texts for activities that certainly do not include just Netflix.

Grown-ish has been compared to A Different World, the ’80s spin-off of The Cosby Show that saw Denise Huxtable leave to attend a fictional historically black institution, Hillman College. That show borrowed from Morehouse College and Spelman College and is credited with giving such institutions extensive visibility.

The creator of Black-ish, Kenya Barris, told Vanity Fair that he hoped Grown-ish would match the influence of A Different World, which inspired him to go to college.

When hints of the show’s concept came on Black-ish, it seemed it might challenge elements of higher education. It pokes fun at exaggerated -- and perhaps a little stale -- concepts of what the public (and right-wing voters) typically deride among colleges and universities.

Barris hinted in his Vanity Fair interview that perhaps the faux college of the show is based on the University of Southern California, where his daughter studies. Barris said when he heard about his daughter’s life at college, he thought, “Oh my God! There is a show here.”

When, in a third-season episode of Black-ish, Zoey attends a two-day orientation for incoming freshmen, she encounters a high-strung student who proclaims to be a “tri-racial, gender-fluid, panoramic demisexual” who wants to be known by plural pronouns.

Zoey fakes a bathroom trip, only to be bombarded by a perky member of the “Social Justice Dance Squad,” who asks Zoey and her friend if they think the cops -- or the rhythm -- is going to get them.

And yes, the term “safe space” is thrown around.

Some references in the Black-ish episode are a bit more subtle and do appeal to higher ed insiders. The new president of the university is a former corporate head more concerned with seeking donations for a solar-heated aquatics center than listening to the problems of the students living in a mostly African-American dormitory.

This is much to the chagrin of the dean with 30-plus years of experience who was passed over for the job and grimaces when the president tells him he didn’t read the 200-page report he prepared on the campus. “I don’t have the right job,” the dean huffs later.

These dynamics are largely absent in the new series, though. Zoey does sign up for a midnight marketing class that seems to only focus on how to fly drones.

At college, Zoey meets her friend group, whom she dubs her Breakfast Club -- a brash Jewish girl discovering her sexuality, black twins from the wrong side of town eager to scrub their former “hood” image, an overachieving first-generation Indian-American who deals drugs on the side, a pot-smoking fashionista, and an zealous activist who asks Zoey to support his petition against the administration swapping blackboards with white boards.

These interactions among the students, almost all of whom are in their first year, is where the show succeeds. It dropped the jokes on the higher education system from the Black-ish episode in favor of more character-based comedy, with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. In one episode, the students gather in a room to debate ferociously the definition of “hooking up” -- is it a kiss, is it sex? It’s an argument that you would hear walking down a dorm hall, where -- according to Grown-ish -- there will be socks and shoes hung on doors to signify to a roommate that indeed, you are hooking up.

Please wait in the hall for a while.

Grown-ish premieres today.

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