There are multiple elements of “Grown-ish” that could be outdated before Season 1 wraps. iPhone-style text bubbles pop up frequently onscreen (not to mention in the opening titles). Series star Yara Shahidi breaks the fourth wall Frank Underwood-style when she wants to speak directly to her audience. Episode 2’s title comes from a 2012 Kendrick Lamar song.
And while each of these potentially irksome aspects could bother various viewers to varying extremes, none of them threaten to overshadow the emotional authenticity of Kenya Barris’ spinoff series. Like “Black-ish” before it, “Grown-ish” has more on its mind than a good time, and through its first three episodes, the half-hour Freeform comedy explores universal fears, joys, and problems with enough style and insight to make you overlook any comparably minor squabbles.
The pilot picks up with a knowing but natural passing of the baton: Zoey Johnson (Shahidi) is on the phone with her father, Dre (Anthony Anderson), trying to console the weeping man now that his nest is all but empty. Does he have four more children at home? Sure, but that means nothing now that his favorite has left for college. It’s been three whole days, but Dre’s loss is everyone else’s gain as Zoey proves more than worthy of carrying her own solo show.
First off, Shahidi is great. Always a compelling part of the “Black-ish” ensemble, the 17-year-old actress doesn’t try to do too much despite the brighter spotlight, and her restraint pays dividends in a show that’s not after huge belly laughs so much as warm smiles and casual rumination. Her comedic timing is on point, and she carries an aptly youthful blend of enthusiasm and trepidation. She’s even good when Zoey exhibits believable character flaws, like when she’s asked to help out at a party and starts pouting because she was only there to flirt with a boy. Zoey being a little spoiled makes sense, considering the lush lifestyle she was raised in.
That being said, Zoey’s not exactly the lone star of “Grown-ish.” That first episode does an efficient job introducing the new series regulars and evoking their best qualities quickly. Trevor Jackson plays Aaron, an activist with an eye for Zoey. He’s not the only one staring, though, as Luka Sabbat plays Luca, a laid-back freshman in everything but his couture. Boxing out the boys are Ana (Francia Raisa), Zoey’s roommate, Nomi (Emily Arlook), a quick new friend, and tennis stars Jazz and Sky (played by twins Chloe and Halle Bailey).
It’s a diverse group and a talented one. Many series with young casts filled with new faces have at least one weak spot, but like “Dear White People” before it, this college comedy seems to have put together one helluva squad. (Kudos to casting directors Alexis Frank Koczara and Christine Shevchenko.)
And if Justin Simien’s Netflix series set the bar for modern college-set storytelling, then “Grown-ish” finds a nice groove as its less mature sister school. “Dear White People” has a lot of weight to it and wields it wisely; “Grown-ish” is lighter, even when it tackles serious subject matter like drugs and sex, and it feels easily digestible because of it. It should be able to reach a mass audience, possibly one beyond the “Black-ish” crowd that birthed it.
Zoey’s story may have started years ago when she was younger, living in her parent’s Sherman Oaks mansion, and making fun of her less-cool brother. But this feels like a fresh start for her, as a person, and it works as a fresh start for her character. She’s intent on discovering what else is out there; she wants to find her own path, and “Grown-ish” seems ready to give it to her. Here’s hoping Dre can make it on his own.
“Grown-ish” premieres Wednesday, January 3 on Freeform.