Wednesday, January 10, 2018

REVIEW: 'Grown-ish' - Zoey and Her Friends Debate the 'U Up?' Text in 'If You're Reading This, It's Too Late'

Freeform's Grown-ish - Episode 1.03 "If You're Reading This, It's Too Late"

Zoey is elated when it seems like her crush has feelings for her, but starts to worry he may see things differently when she receives a late night "U up?" text.

Last week's hourlong premiere ended with Zoey getting a "U up?" text from Aaron. It was a moment that suggesting that maybe she wasn't done with partying and adderall like she claimed to Ana in the scene prior. It was a hint that this show was perhaps going to be more serialization than Black-ish. And now, "If You're Reading This, It's Too Late" tends more to the comedic sensibilities of this world. It still tackles an important subject in the hookup culture of collage. But it's never played as a potential risk to Zoey. Her actions are simply a college student experimenting with what she likes and what's the best way to handle a situation like this. As she points out, technology has made it so easy for women to feel empowered and have multiple men at the same time. But technology can swiftly be the downfall because everyone and everything is so connected nowadays. It's a fascinating story told here. It offers more of an example of how the show will function on a regular basis when it is just trying to be a solid comedy that doesn't try to have more nuance with its main characters. It extends the focus so that not everything is told from Zoey's perspective - even though those brief cutaways to Aaron and Vivek show how they are reacting to the same thing that she is at the moment. It's a very focused show at this point in its run. It's all ultimately about this group of friends dealing with the same thing every week with Zoey being the lead character through all of it. That's a formula that is already working.

Of course, this episode also takes a pretty conventional turn as well for a story that is a bit more familiar in its sitcom setup. Zoey panics about getting these texts from Aaron. She is trying to read more into it. She wants to know what it actually means. Yes, that does produce a meaningful conversation about what the phrase "hooking up" means. Many of the characters do agree that it indicates sexual content. But the confusion comes from how far it actually goes. Some argue that it's sex all the way while others suggesting it's just making out with a little more touching. And then, there's Ana who is arguing that it doesn't have to be sexual at all. That makes her stand out in this group of friends. It makes her a bit more of the oblivious one. It produces an easy joke about the group now being concerned about her relationship with her uncle. But it's also so refreshing to just see Ana as a casual member of this group after she was kept at a distance for the first two episodes. She is one of Zoey's girl friends. These are the lasting relationships that will form at college. They mean something because of the discussions they have about subjects like this. Zoey may be neurotic right now. But the story only increases that the further it goes along.

And yes, it's a little weird to see Zoey get so caught up in what this text means that she just starts responding to Aaron with every single thought she has about their potential relationship. That's a spiral that seems funny in the moment. There are some in the audience who probably thought it was funny. The overwhelming reaction will be of cringing though. It's such a weird moment that doesn't feel like it comes from the same confident character who existed over on Black-ish. This doesn't feel like the Zoey Johnson we have come to know over the past few years. It's weird and basically just a cost of her now leading her own show. She can't be too confident because then she would have no where to go for a character arc over the course of the season. And so, the third episode features this ridiculous text message exchange. It seems like it has the potential to completely destroy any sense of a relationship whatsoever between Zoey and Aaron. That's not inherently bad because the show seems to be jumping into romance between its lead characters way too quickly. But again, the series is aware of these faults. It highlights the mistakes made to ensure that the audience understands why these characters aren't a proper match right now. It would be too easy for them to get together. But those feelings still have to ring true to the characters as well. They need to be struggling because romance is important to them right now.

All of this basically leads Zoey to start dating both Aaron and Luca. Both of these romances are a little odd and a bit premature. It's clearly the show setting up some grand love triangle that will carry the narrative across multiple seasons as the characters grow. But the work put into developing these relationships right now is a bit too lazy. Zoey and Aaron have always been depicted as the grand love story of this show. Those are the positions they have been asked to fulfill. And now, she seemingly ruins that bond because of her texting. And then, the next scene features Aaron wanting to completely forget all of that to continue what they have going on between them. There would appear to be a scene missing there that shows how Aaron is able to quickly forget how crazy Zoey previously seemed while texting. And second, there has never been a hint of Zoey showing romantic feelings for Luca before this moment. But now, she's proud to say that he's the other boy she has been crushing on. It's clear that the show is stating that these dynamics will always have some sexual tension within them. That will always define the story that Zoey shares with Aaron and Luca. This is the introductory episode that begins this journey. She tries to have both of them at the same time. But she can't do that. They both find out and she's left with nothing in the romance department.

It's all building up to Zoey coming to that realization that open and honest communication is what's needed in a relationship. But it's also more important to rely on one's friendships than simply be chasing after romance. Love is still important but these bonds Zoey has formed on the campus have the potential of lasting just as long if not longer as well. She can be her most open, vulnerable and neurotic with this group of female friends. It's such an empowering message. It props up female friendships above the need to find a man. Zoey isn't just defined by that one thing in her life. She's a much more complicated character than that. But the show is also showing just how imperfect Zoey is as a character. Every episode now seems to end with Zoey having this big, proclaiming moment where she has learned from her mistakes and won't make them again only to have a hint of relapse coming very soon. The threat from drugs and partying wasn't anything to truly worrying about. She was able to handle her schoolwork and juggle dating both Aaron and Luca. But now, she has her big monologue that's all about valuing female friends interrupted by a new student looking for the library. He presents himself as an attractive new guy Zoey can obsess over. Again, that highlights the immaturity of Zoey and her journey at the heart of the narrative. It undercurrents the overall message of the episode a little bit. But it's also showing that Zoey can have noble aspirations while still dealing with the same problems on an ongoing basis.

Some more thoughts:
  • It would appear that Charlie's class is the only one that these college students actually attend. That's probably not true. It just happens to be the only classroom set the show wants to produce right now. It's just a little annoying because nothing of actual value happens in that class. It's mostly just an excuse to incorporate Charlie and his absurd worldview in this show. But it would still be beneficial to peak into some of the other classes these characters are taking.
  • It still doesn't quite seem like the show knows what to do with Dean Parker. He's the administrator on campus. But the show is much more interested in Zoey and her group of friends facing challenges by themselves. He is inserted in an awkward position in the big resolution of this story. He helps Zoey come to her big realization. But that doesn't seem earned because he's not really a character yet.
  • This episode also shows some condemnation towards college administrations being surprised that their students are having sex in their dorm rooms. Zoey makes a big deal about there being lots of sex happening after parties because of the beds that have been provided. It's an odd moment that feels more pointed and separated from the rest of the overall story.
  • It is pretty funny to see Zoey complaining about how guys don't struggle about the nuances of texting only to then cutaway to Aaron having the same anxieties. It shows that it really isn't a one-sided conflict after all - even when Aaron is later seen playing video games instead of actually sweating about it. But it's a story that basically just creates a running joke about what "nudie banks" are that ultimately doesn't go anywhere of value.
  • Zoey's difficulties dating both Aaron and Luca are only made worse by the fact that they don't like each other at all. That's a conflict that is loosely defined at the moment. There's really no reason for their dislike of each other. They just don't like the other in a general sense. There's the potential for them to become friends in the future. But right now, it's just important that they are pitted against each other for Zoey's affections.
  • It's still taking a beat to get used to Zoey actually addressing the audience with commentary about what's going on in her world. It's awkward because sometimes she's looking directly at us. But the show then acknowledges that the supporting characters heard what she was saying as well. So, the device doesn't seem to have much importance in those moments - even when it does work in moments where she is actually alone.