Tuesday, January 2, 2018

TV REVIEW: Freeform's 'Grown-ish'

Freeform will premiere its new original comedy series Grown-ish on Wednesday, January 3 at 8/7c. with back-to-back episodes. The comedy stars Yara Shahidi, Deon Cole, Trevor Jackson, Emily Arlook, Francia Raisa, Jordan Buhat and Chris Parnell.

Read on for my thoughts on the Black-ish spinoff after screening its first three episodes.

Black-ish has proven itself to be one of the pillars of ABC's strong comedy brand. It's a show with its pulse on current issues. Its social commentary has been commended and appreciated many times over that show's four seasons. It tackles subject matter that most other shows would be afraid to cover - especially for broadcast television. It has been bold in the stories it wishes to address and the ways that its cast of characters talk about them. It has always told things from many diverse perspectives. It's not afraid to make some of its main characters unlikable or for them to have surprising positions on certain topics. It's become a very solid formula for that show. And now, the series is trying to expand its world with Grown-ish - a spinoff that follows eldest daughter Zoey Johnson off to college at California University. And yes, the new series is completely willing and able to explore this specific world from many different perspectives. It continues that trend from the original series. But it's also abundantly clear after seeing the first three episodes that these two shows are remarkably different. Grown-ish does have a slightly different style and tone from Black-ish. But it's still incredibly effective and plays true to the specific nature of the story and the network.

Black-ish is designed as a family comedy that airs on a network where family comedies reign supreme. Meanwhile, Grown-ish is more of a hangout sitcom centering on a group of friends around the same age on a network that is still trying to figure out its new brand. Freeform has had some mild successes since it made the transition from ABC Family. Grown-ish hopes to continue that streak going by building on the success that Black-ish has had on ABC. I'd honestly be surprised if it does just as well in the ratings. But it honestly might because of the immediate connection. Audiences have seen Zoey grow across four seasons of that show. So, it makes sense to follow her through these new adventures she is going to have on her own series. But the show also wants to be easily accessible to new viewers too. One doesn't have to have seen Black-ish or even like that show to like or respect what Grown-ish is aspiring to do. Yes, they are catering to different audiences. Grown-ish will naturally be more appealing to a younger demographic that can relate to what Zoey and her new friends are going through at college. But it still tackles some very relatable and universal themes as well that could appeal to a mass audience just like the original show has done so well across the seasons.

The new show debuts on Wednesday, January 3 with back-to-back episodes at 8/7c. This is honestly a smart decision because the first episode features a ton of exposition. It's introducing about seven new characters of importance while spotlighting a new side of Zoey. That's a lot to juggle in a simple 22-minute episode. The show finds a nice conceit to make it easily digestible in a quick amount of time. But it's still a lot of information that the audience has to sift through in order to appreciate what these relationships are bound to become. It should be appreciated just how diverse this young cast is. Not only do they come from different racial backgrounds but the story highlights their differences when it comes to religion, sexual identity and ambition. It's really quite remarkable and does a nice job in reflecting what life on college campus is actually like. It is a melting pot of different ideas from unique and new people. It challenges the worldview people have had up to that point in their lives. They are on their own for the first time in their lives trying to figure out their own identity. There is pressure from the way society wants to view them, how they believe society sees their actions and how they ultimately want to be like. This show does a nice job in having a nuanced conversation about identity and this crucial time in a person's life where everything seems to be changing just as the world is becoming more complicated and real.

Of course, all of this essentially requires a little bit of a character makeover with Zoey Johnson. In the confident hands of Yara Shahidi, she continues to be an excellent focal point for the series. In fact, Shahidi proves herself as an even more capable actress on this show than she has in Black-ish. That's true because this is her show. She's the one with the central performance and perspective. She's the one narrating events to the audience. That creates a little bit of a problem. This is so completely Zoey Johnson's story. Every other character is defined through their relationship to her. That's good and vital in the early going. But it will also make it more difficult for subplots with the rest of the ensemble later on. Plus, there is a dueling narrative device that creates a little bit of chaos. Much like Black-ish, there is voiceover narration with Zoey taking about the background of certain events to the audience. But the new show also features direct to camera addresses from Zoey. That's a change-up to the formula of how the audience has always seen this character. It's a bit of an adjustment. Plus, it never really seems like the show needs both of these devices - even though they do a great job in letting us into Zoey's head to see how she reacts to any given situation.

But again, the series has to reframe Zoey's overall position in this world. On Black-ish, she was the cool and confident daughter of Andre and Rainbow Johnson. She was never the one spiraling because the rest of her family were the crazy and ridiculous ones. But here, she feels more uncertained and paranoid that she never really knows what to do in a social situation. She becomes a part of college life but has to relearn how to juggle that with her new demanding classwork. It's a lot of relearning for both the character and the audience. The viewers have seen Zoey for a couple of years now. College is challenging her in a new way. It's understandable and a part of life. It's a crisis that isn't unique to Zoey. That's probably what makes the show so endearing in the early going. The specifics may be changing for Zoey. She may be a bit more naive and neurotic than she was in high school. But it's also empowering to see her figure her life out while appreciating these new relationships. She is learning more things about herself than ever before. That's amusing while also being pretty nuanced and compelling as well.