It’s a different world than A Different World’s world
When the creative team behind Black-ish announced there would be a spin-off following the eldest Johnson kid to college it was a bit of a shock. Black-ish, which is a show about a suburbanite family led by Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) as they navigate predominantly white spaces while instilling a sense of pride in their cultural heritage within their five children, is often funny, educational, and smart. But quite a few of us wondered if the creative team would be able to juggle a spin-off in addition to the original show’s full seasons.
Well, that that spin-off, Grown-ish, returned for its third season this year on Freeform. Meanwhile, a prequel spin-off, Mixed-ish, joined the parent show on ABC. Mixed-ish follows Bow’s family as she and her siblings struggle with the harsh realities of being bi-racial in a 1985 predominately white suburb and school. Unlike Grown-ish, Mixed-ish doesn’t have conventional crossovers. It’s set 30 years in the past, so we have younger versions of Bow and her side of the family at the center of the show. So Grown-ish does what both of the other shows can’t do by focusing solely on today’s millennial experience.
On the surface, Grown-ish seems like the belated answer to shows we grew up with, like Saved by the Bell. However, this time the charming lead is a young woman of color, her friend circle is made up entirely of people in underrepresented communities, and it tackles meatier matters than caffeine pill addiction. At first glance, you could write off the show as the millennial version of A Different World without the creepy Cosby connections. That comparison is understandable but wrong for a variety of reasons that include social media and the new forms of peer pressure that stem from it, this newest wave of white nationalists, the #metoo movement, and other cultural shifts that we now talk about in a more open manner. It’s a different world than the one that created A Different World. Grown-ish reflects that.
The show’s simple premise of following the eldest Johnson daughter Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) as she and her friends navigate college and all of the new freedoms, choices, and stressors that come with that. The first season alone covered topics that included colorism, campus drug use, and college hookup culture to various degrees of success but with good intentions nonetheless.
Even though Grown-ish goes there in an almost sanitized Degrassi way, it usually gets in its way by trying to see all sides of the argument. This particularly hurts in the season two episode, “Messy,” where the entire friend circle shares their thoughts on the campus’ new enthusiastic consent policy. At this moment in time, we’d like to believe that all media we’re consuming is pro-consent, but in this episode some of the characters we’ve followed here say very problematic things regarding consent before the conversation opens up to enlighten everyone on bigger implications and biases stemming from the proposed policy. This episode also takes a hit as it’s in the same season where Nomi (Emily Arlook) is having a relationship with a faculty member, Professor Hewson (Katherin Moennig of The L Word) and no one in the group even mentions power dynamics.
The show often gets in its way by attempting to get into important topics like colorism, with a cast lacking dark-skinned actors. In the season one episode “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” Jazz (Chloe Bailey) and Sky (Halle Bailey) start the conversation by dissecting how dating is hard for black women and then quickly shift into how even black men prefer “light-skin girls” to them. While the twins support their argument with decades of proof, the show itself has yet to acknowledge its own colorism problem, so this argument failed. The lack of diversity regarding skin types in Hollywood is an ongoing dialogue that Grown-ish, which is already working to correct the problem from within, should address. So it’s amazing that no one took this opportunity to invite a darker-skinned actor into the fold for this story.
The Not-So-Wonder Years
While it’s easy to see that Grown-ish still needs to grow up in many regards, it’s still filling a void in the television landscape that brings me back to it again and again. The show seems to want to take edgier stances than that of its parent show, Black-ish, (although it has yet to have an episode pulled) and is equally bound by the fact that Disney owns it. While the PG-13 tone of the show prevents it from handling current topics with the same care as shows like Dear White People, it also provides something a bit more mature and engaging for Generation Z to reflect today’s society. It’s miles ahead of what TV gave to tweens and teens of generations past, no matter how hard it stumbles.
Grown-ish recently returned for its third season, which opens with a party to celebrate historically black colleges and universities and Beychella. Then Nomi returns to school in time to deliver a huge plot twist. She’s pregnant. It seems that at least one character will have a longer-lasting consequence than we’ve come to expect from this group. As someone who will be tuning in all season, I find myself hoping that this is a sign that the creative team took this last hiatus as a chance to do some self-reflection and move this show that much closer to being the show that it could be.