Wednesday, January 17, 2018

REVIEW: 'Grown-ish' - Zoey Tries to Help a Star Athlete Without Falling in Love with Him in 'Starboy'

Freeform's Grown-ish - Episode 1.04 "Starboy"

Zoey makes a deal with Dean Parker to tutor the star basketball player in order to get a letter of recommendation, but her friends seem to think the relationship is something more.

Grown-ish proves itself to be very aware of what a coming-of-age story means in 2018. This is a world of hyper-connectivity. It's a world where college students already have a brand and identity to themselves. There is the inherent pressure to have life already figured out at that point. The world keeps providing these examples of young people making a difference and having clear and concise messages. It can be stressful for any young person because those images are just constantly being seen. "Starboy" delves into the pressure of expectations for college students. There's the pressure from an entire school counting on the star basketball player to continue playing well and bringing in the millions of dollars for the program. There's the pressure of knowing exactly what one wants to study and achieve in college so that that money doesn't go to waste. It's such a high-pressure environment. It's a stressful time that is comprised down to Zoey still feeling her way through this world. She isn't on top of the world like she was in high school. She's still taking adderall in order to thrive in this environment. That's just a casual part of this episode that is bound to have larger implications later on. But this episode also delves into the support systems that are necessary in order to deal with this pressure. Life can be lonely and scary a lot of the time. Friendships are key. But this episode also ends in an intriguing place where people are left alone not sure what to do with their lives based on the decisions they've made.

All of this is also wrapped up in a conversation about college sports. It's the show taking the time to truly offer a pointed commentary on how broken that system has always been. It provides a condemnation of programs that reward coaches and appeal to major donors while ensuring that the star athletes get no financial benefits. Yes, the argument can be made that they are attending college for free. They get scholarship money to go to these schools. But they are still essentially broke while on such a public stage. They are asked to continue to thrive in the sport while being a good role model that will make the program envious to more donors and athletes. It's a lot of pressure. The system is rigged to ensure that these athletes are primed for success. In the beginning, Zoey is tasked with tutoring new student Cash Mooney because the school needs him to keep his grades up in order to continue qualifying for the basketball team. The school has a vested interest in his academic success largely because of the impact it can have on his game. But it's also a fleeting interest. He is only of importance as long as he continues being a star player. Once that buzz dies down, the system moves on to the next star athlete and the skills that he or she bring to the table.

Zoey is the only person who takes a personal interest in Cash. It all starts because of an arrangement she forms with Dean Parker. She'll tutor Cash in exchange for a recommendation letter for an internship. That proves that Zoey remains driven while knowing exactly what she wants to do. She wants this internship at Teen Vogue because it's the next logical step for her career. She's aware of what needs to be done and is taking the appropriate steps to ensure success. But she also genuinely cares about Cash as he's dealing with all of this pressure. At first, she just sees him as a punk athlete who doesn't care about their tutoring sessions. She has no time to waste on someone like that. He is able to convince her that there is more to him underneath that public persona. She and the audience get to see a little bit of that. He's mostly the newcomer to the show in this episode. He's a person who comes in to better establish this story about college sports the show wants to tell. But it's still an engaging story. It's defined by romantic tension as well. Zoey likes how Cash makes Aaron awkward around her. Zoey's girl friends say she's going to have sex with Cash despite her objections. But nothing romantic happens. Instead, this story is defined completely through Zoey forming this new connection and trying to show to Cash that all of this pressure to be the best in basketball doesn't have to be the thing that solely defines him.

And so, Zoey opens up the possibility of Cash becoming a film major instead. Of course, that's just a tease that the audience doesn't really get to live in for very long. Zoey says that as a possibility in order to calm Cash's nerves. It's because of that action that he is able to excel on the basketball court again. The school was ready to give up on him. They were ready to label him a fluke in high school who flamed out early on in his college career. She got him out of his own head. And so, he was able to bounce back and prove why he was such an envious talent in the first place. This school has done everything for him to succeed. And now, he is doing that. It just comes at a personal cost to Zoey. She's the one investing in his future. She's the one who says the right things in order to connect with him on a personal level. But in the end, both Cash and the system that supports him are completely fine with him paying a guy to take his midterm for him. Zoey formed this dynamic with Cash. She was tutoring him to help him learn. He basically betrays that trust and immediately turns cold to her. Yes, some romantic feelings were starting to develop on Zoey's side. She enjoyed being his "Cup Bitch." She enjoyed the dynamic they shared. But it was only setting her up to be disappointed because Cash has his goals in life. And now, he has found a way to achieve them without really having to do the work at school like she wants him to.

All of this is pretty devastating and may ultimately take Zoey away from Nomi in her time of need. It feels like the show is still figuring out how to tell subplots in a way that isn't too distracting from Zoey. Zoey is still predominately the main character who filters through everything of importance in this world. But the episodes keep increasing the screen time of the supporting ensemble as well. That's a good thing because they deserve to have stories and lives outside of Zoey too. Nomi here is proud to be bisexual and speaks out against anyone who says she's non-committal or simply experimenting. It's such an empowering moment. But it's a story that also highlights a double standard. Nomi can have this moment to stand up for herself and how it's perfectly fine for her to be attracted to both men and woman. But once she learns her new romantic interest is also bi, she freaks out. She is now the person expressing these fears and prejudices that she just got done dismissing. That's an interesting story that basically just ends halfway though. That's odd and a little disappointing. Hopefully, it's something that continues because it should. The same goes for that tease at the end with Aaron. He has always had the feeling of being the big shot on campus. He's the romantic interest for Zoey. But it's fascinating to see him all alone strolling through campus only to reveal that he has no idea what exactly comes next for him in life. He has no idea what a job or a career actually means for someone like him who has always seen himself as a revolutionary without a clear focus. That's a fascinating story thread too that needs to be expanded.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Starboy" was written by Elaine Welteroth & Chad Sanders and directed by John Fortenberry.
  • It's a tad startling to see just how casual Zoey is now treating her drug use. She closed that episode where she first took adderall determined to stop. But there was also the tease that she couldn't. Now, that's been confirmed with her being seen taking another pill. It's not hitting her in the same way. She still comes across as herself. She's still smart and confident. But showing that action does confirm that that is going to be an ongoing concern for her this season.
  • It's odd how in talking about her proposed tutoring session with Cash in which her friends suggest they'll bone, Zoey says she's off men because of what happened with Aaron and Luca only for the show to flashback to what happened last week. Sure, it may be beneficial to those who missed the previous episode. But that's never really what this episode or this story is about either.
  • Jaz and Sky are the perfect characters to talk about the pressure college athletes are under because they are the track stars who came from the hood. They do offer a couple of good points in that argument. And yet, they are mostly used for comic relief in how they are constantly stealing food away from the other characters. It's a solid joke too. More could have been done with them though.
  • This episode deals so much with the pressure the world now places on this specific generation and how they respond to that. But it's also intriguing to see the pressure of parental expectations. Nomi and Ana have talked about their respective families and how they exist beyond what is expected of them. That should make it fascinating when those parents are eventually introduced.
  • I'm not a sports person at all. But it's also pretty obvious just how restrictive those basketball game shots on TV had to be here. It's mostly confined to one corner and shot from a really specific but odd angle. It makes it clear that it's a game everyone is invested in. But it also feels very contained and unlike how games are typical broadcast on television - which Zoey says no one watches anymore (thus allowing Cash to say "Cup Bitch.")