Wednesday, January 3, 2018

REVIEW: 'Grown-ish' - Zoey Must Rely on New Things at College in 'Late Registration' & 'Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe'

Freeform's Grown-ish - Episodes 1.01 "Late Registration" and 1.02 "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe"

Zoey Johnson arrives at California University certain she will be a hot shot on campus, but quickly learns she may have a little more growing to do. Zoey starts to experience "fear of missing out" for the first time in her life when she tries to juggle her schoolwork, extracurricular activities and, of course, partying.

It is really striking to see just how much genuine emotion these opening episodes of Grown-ish are already able to convey. It's really inspiring actually. The show does a solid job in introducing this entire ensemble of characters and making them feel like a distinct part of this world. Yes, some introductions are better than others. The show is still figuring itself out in some parts. But these are two really promising episodes to start the series. That's an encouraging sign that this show will be just as powerful and significant as the show it came from. Black-ish has frequently been a strong family comedy with powerful social commentary elements. That continues in these first two episodes of the spinoff. It is now told through the perspective of an identity crisis. That's fascinating. Zoey Johnson was always the most cooly confident member of her family. Yes, she's faced plenty of struggles on that show. But now, the spinoff is truly going inside her head to see how she interacts with the rest of the world. At times, it's annoying how much time is actually spent telling this story from her perspective. There is both voiceover narration as well as direct to camera addresses. It proudly makes this Zoey's story. But the creative team has a fascination and willingness to explore the different backgrounds of the members of the ensemble as well. It makes these stories specific in the character types but universal in the situations they are all going through. That's really quite effective here.

Of course, "Late Registration" has a lot of exposition it needs to get out of the way. It features an annoying amount of voiceover. In fact, it's a little funny how six characters are basically given a minute-long introduction of their basic identity characteristics only for a later minute-long sequence to correct those preconceived notions about them. It's amusing because it highlights the way people often feel pressured to act a certain way because of societal standards even at the cost of their own personal identity. That is a profound theme that connects well to the college atmosphere and the journey Zoey is on at the moment. The humor comes from the specific setting these seven students are in right now. Now, Deon Cole's Charlie also appearing on this show could easily become a distracting gimmick after awhile. He's easily the most absurd character in this world. He's the most reliably funny as well. But the ridiculousness of this midnight class that he teaches could ultimately undermine some of the comedy. It doesn't here because the class has importance in bringing these seven college students together. But it's definitely something the show will have to be aware of in the future. Charlie has to be used in just short bursts of time in order to truly be effective. Over-exposure could really lesson the humor.

But again, the first episode does a strong job in establishing the young leads of this show. Everything starts with Zoey. She's the character the audience has an immediate connection with because she's been on television for the past three years. The premiere further drives that connection by having Anthony Anderson's Dre appear through a phone call with Zoey where he can't quite let go and have her experience college on her own. It's a pretty broad scene to set the stage for the show. But it also felt necessary given the connection previously established within the family. From there, the show heads to class to broadly introduce its other students. Sky and Jazz are from the hood and are star athletes trying to move up in life. Aaron is the social justice warrior always fighting for a good cause. Luca is the carefree student who doesn't conform to society's gender standards as it pertains to clothing. Nomi is a go-getter who is open about her sexuality with everyone except her family members out of fear they'll see her differently. And Vivek is the son of Indian immigrants who idolizes Drake and is also a drug dealer. All of these are fascinating characters right away. The premiere also establishes Ana, Zoey's roommate whom she betrays in a major way, but she doesn't get the same amount of nuance as everyone else does.

The premiere really is just a nice and relaxing introduction into this world. It's crazy and absurd because Charlie wants his students to tell the administration why they signed up for his class. But the students actually expose themselves in a raw and vulnerable way that proves that they are all struggling with their own version of an identity crisis. Zoey believes she had her life figured out. She sailed through high school with excellence. She was the popular kid and the star in her family. But now, she's at college and really struggling with how she sees herself and how she wants the world to see her. She forms this connection with Ana right away. They go to a college party together. And then, Zoey betrays Ana by not caring for her after she gets sick from partying too much. Ana needs help and Zoey runs away. That makes her seem like such an awful person. It's what fuels the tension between Zoey and Ana during these opening episodes - though it won't extend further than the second episode. Zoey knows that it's an awful thing that she did. She shares this brutal story with her new friends. It's what forces all of them to open up about their fears and insecurities in this world as well. They are all feeling the pressure to succeed. They have their own prejudices and stories to deal with as well. Some are ridiculous - like Vivek calling his dad a bum because he doesn't seem ambitious despite the incredible story he must have getting to this country and caring for his family. But others are really profound - like Sky and Jazz feeling the pressure to either succeed or just be another failed statistic from the hood. Zoey feels lucky to have friends like this. They've bonded in this immediate way that forges these character dynamics in such a strong and effective way. And now, the show can move forward knowing it's put in the hard work to get the audience to care about these people.

"Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" also delves into the transition Zoey is feeling in college life. She's finding it difficult to manage the many different aspects of this world. There is classes, extensive homework and partying. She lays out the many ways the other students cope with this chaotic lifestyle. The show is pretty blunt in showing the many destructive options that present through drug and alcohol use. It's bold of the show to depict that aspect of this world. The language and situations depicted here are a bit more edgy than they are on Black-ish. That reflects the worldview of the story and also the difference between ABC and Freeform. There are more things this show can get away with - even though it's still clear that the characters can't swear without it being bleeped. But here, the second episode tells a story about drug use. Zoey is finding it difficult to juggle everything in her life. And so, she turns to adderall in order to focus on her schoolwork. It's something that is just casually treated as commonplace in this world. Her friends encourage her to take the drugs and then make fun of her after she focuses on the wrong subject for the longest time. That shows that these supporting characters aren't all perfect and have the solutions that Zoey needs to hear right now. They have just found something that works for them in the moment. And in the end, Zoey is successful in accomplishing everything she wants to get done this week. It just comes at a cost.

The show is also laying it on pretty thick that there is sexual chemistry between Zoey and Aaron. That dynamic just feels forced. It does highlight how people can act irrationally when it comes to interacting with a crush. Zoey even admits that she is stalking Aaron and building up their connection as something more than it actually is. But it's much more genuine to spend time between her and Ana. That's the relationship that needs to re-establish trust. They do that at the end of the second episode by actually talking and sharing their feelings. Zoey apologizes and spills her guts about everything that has been going on. That's an important relationship that gives Zoey yet another friend to rely on. But it's also important to note that everything isn't all wrapped up in a clean and neat way by the end of this story. Zoey and Ana have their talk with the resolution coming that Zoey just needs to stop partying and obsessing over Aaron. She needs to put her focus on her schoolwork in order to thrive in this environment. But the story recognizes the difference between talking about something and actually doing it. She says she's done with Aaron and drugs. But she's tempted by them once more in the end. That ensures that this is going to be an ongoing issue with her this season. That attempt at serialization is fascinating and should lead to some intriguing stories in this series.

Some more thoughts:
  • Chris Parnell is also in this show. He feels like casting that legitimizes the show and puts a familiar face amongst a cast of newcomers. And yet, he's barely in these opening episodes. The show thrives on its young cast and it manages to form that connection between them and the audience. As such, it's a little curious as to what Dean Parker will actually be doing in this show. Right now, he doesn't have much of a purpose beyond being pretty oblivious.
  • It's pretty amusing that Sky and Jazz can't stand to be around each other even though they are always defined as being twins. That's how the world always wants to see them. They are the twin sports stars. They have the same fears of the world. But they strive for some individuality as well which is a fascinating angle for story as well.
  • Right now, Aaron seems to be encouraging the bad habits that Zoey is forming. As such, that doesn't make him an idealistic romantic lead for the female protagonist. He needs more dimension to him that reveals why it isn't a problem that he throws these parties and is always inviting Zoey over. The drug use is encouraged by Vivek and Nomi. But the partying comes from Aaron, which could be a significant problem.
  • I wonder how much these characters will interact with those from Black-ish. It will be difficult because of the different networks. But they also feel like two completely different and distinct worlds. Yes, there is some crossover here with Dre and Charlie appearing. Charlie will continue to appear on both shows on a semi-regular basis. But the strength of this show will come from the regular characters and not the special appearances from someone in the Johnson family.
  • It once again needs to be applauded how diverse this show and its cast is. It features characters and stories of different backgrounds and cultural experiences. It features character who typically aren't regular fixtures in ensembles. It strives to tell stories from many different backgrounds which only enhances the overall storytelling even more. College is a diverse place and this show recognizes that.