TV Spinoffs are a tricky business. We still haven’t quite gotten over “Joey” jokes. ABC’s “Black-ish” spinoff, “Grown-ish” follows in the footsteps of “A Different World” in its set up. While it shows some spark and promise, the show’s umbilical cord tying it to the Emmy nominated ABC show is more of a hindrance than a help.
“Grown-ish” almost immediately reminds us of its parent series “black-ish” on ABC. Dre (Anthony Anderson) cries on the phone with his oldest daughter Zoe (Yara Shahidi) in the opening scene. She announces she won’t be coming home from college on the weekend. After that handoff, the show belongs to Zoe as she navigates her first few days of college. This includes making bad decisions at parties, trying to stay awake during midnight classes and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Shahidi was always a standout on “black-ish.” As the star of “grown-ish,” she continues to shine and makes for an engaging lead. Zoe is a fashionable, funny and flawed lead that seems ripe to be a part of many fun stories. On that front, this spinoff manages to stand on its own.
Zoe’s group of friends are introduced in an homage to “The Breakfast Club” that left my mouth ajar. It’s one of the many elements of the show that couldn’t be more on the nose as if they yelled “The Breakfast Club” in the audience’s face for 22 minutes. Luckily, the majority of the crew is entertaining, and a breath of fresh air in terms of diversity.
Rising to the best-in-show is Vivek (Jordan Buhak), a studious kid and son of an Indian immigrant who runs an incredibly profitable drug ring. His means of income take center stage in the vastly stronger episode where he offers Zoe Adderall. One of the interesting elements of the show is it examines the drug craze on college campuses in a mostly honest and sincere way. While it is strange to see abuse of OxyContin shrugged off in two separate montages, the show’s realization of its setting is refreshing. It’s less of an after-school special and more of a realistic examination of the things Zoe would come into contact with in college. Vivek never seems like a villain either. His ambition leads him to this, rather than means. He’s hard on his immigrant father as he feels his job as a cab driver is beneath his father’s intellect. His desire for a better life on all counts is interesting.
Less plot driving but more fun is Nomi (Emily Arnook). She’s the sassy, Jewish daughter of the Dean of Students (Chris Parnell) who struggles to come out with her bisexuality. She delivers one-liners aplomb and emerges as the highlight of even the clunkiest scenes she’s in. A pair of well-behaved twins (Halle Bailey and Chloe Bailey), who secretly hate each other but fear to have to go back to their home in Inglewood, also land some fun laughs. However, like many of the myriad of characters that are introduced, they are just introduced and tossed off in bald fashion.
We are also introduced to many of Zoe’s other classmates. These snapshots and cutaways are poorly edited and put together like a bad imitation of an ABC Family show. Aaron (Trevor Jackson), an all talk social justice warrior, is set up to be Zoe’s object of desire, and will hopefully get more to do later on. Luca (Luka Sabbat) comes across as a one-note burnout with plenty of style.
In many ways, the storytelling structure betrays character development. Zoe’s dilemma comes when she leaves her first friend, Ana (Francia Raisa), at a college frat party after Ana pukes. This act defines Zoe’s conflict for the first two episodes. However, Ana goes through the whole first episode without lines. She isn’t really developed until late in the second.
Even more of a hindrance is the series’ preoccupation with reminding us it is in the “black-ish” universe. Roughly 80% of the pilot takes place in Zoe’s midnight class taught by Charlie (Deon Cole), her dad’s work colleague. He is given joke upon joke but fails to land at least a third of them. With this being a college show, the show works best when it revolves around more relevant problems facing college students.