Wednesday, March 14, 2018

REVIEW: 'Grown-ish' - Zoey Gets Caught in the Middle of a Fight Between Aaron and Ana in 'Safe and Sound'

Freeform's Grown-ish - Episode 1.11 "Safe and Sound"

When Cal U threatens to close Hawkins Hall, Zoey and her crew plan a protest to protect their "safe space."

Over the last month, it's been easy to feel inspired by the younger generation. Students in high school have really been stepping up lately to make their voices heard in a politic environment that would rather just silence their concerns. It's been so invigorating to see the personalities emerge as passionate individuals can speak so elegantly about complicated subject matter that has divided politicians for decades. Just today it was inspiring to see all of the pictures of students staging walkouts in order to protest gun violence. I'm still in my twenties. I still feel a connection to this time in a person's life. I understand how complicated it can be growing up in an unsettling and dangerous world. It's been fantastic to see just how politically charged everything has become. But it's also awoken something phenomenal in the generation that is coming up right now. They seem to be more active and passionate than any previous generation. A lot of danger and problems have been dumped on them from the previous generations. They've come of age at a time where the threat levels are always high, the country has always been at war with terrorism and social media dominates our entire lives. But that has also formed some tremendous human beings. As such, it's fascinating to see Grown-ish be inspired by these protests and understand that the characters need to have a voice in these causes as well. Yara Shahidi has been such an outspoken advocate about voting - even though she only turned eighteen a few months ago. She is using her platform as an actress to make a difference in the world. As such, it's not surprising to see Zoey become engaged in this way as well. The show presents it as a journey for her in "Safe and Sound." It is a little bumpy along the way. But it's really rewarding as well. It holds up the ideals of what democracy should be while recognizing just how complicated those ideals are in practice.

"Safe and Sound" opens on the threat of Hawkins Hall being shut down in favor of non-discriminatory housing in regards to race. This dorm is the safe space for the black students. It's the place on campus where they can connect with the feelings and experiences of people who look just like them and have dealt with the same trials and tribulations. It's a passionate issue. It's the story in which Aaron finally comes alive as an activist. This entire season he's been talking about how woke he is. He is willing to judge people immediately for their politics because he has big opinions and will make those known to anyone he is with. And yet, he's also just been a struggling college student trying to find direction in life. He doesn't know what he aspires to be. He doesn't have a clear path forward. He feels the calling to be an activist. But he doesn't know the precise details for how to make that his career. And now, his skills are actually put to good use. He actually knows how to organize a protest. Sure, there are still plenty of moments where he is dim. He doesn't realize that the hashtag for the social media campaign shouldn't be BDSM until it's too late. But this is the area where he excels. The other characters have all gotten their moment to shine this season. This episode puts Aaron and Ana into better focus. Of course, it does that by putting them at odds with each other. It's tension that does feel natural as well because of the deep political divisions in this country especially as it pertains to conservatives vs. progressives.

This entire story basically shifts to a political debate. Yes, it's still fundamentally about the safe spaces on campus. Aaron is fighting to preserve his while Ana is fighting to have a place to go without feeling judged. In their first explosive fight, Aaron is willing to hand out safe spaces to everyone except Ana. He doesn't believe Republicans deserve them because they already dominate the culture and Congress. He immediately has a different opinion of Ana as soon as she starts voicing her beliefs and won't back down from a fight. He's more than willing to help the Latina side of her. But when it comes to her conservative beliefs, he quickly chooses to vilify her as someone who is completely complicit with the oppression of his people. The situation is much more complicated than that as the episode clearly points out later on. Ana feels like she is constantly being attacked even though people don't hear her side of things when it pertains to the issues. Yes, she is silly when she criticizes California for not have a concealed carry law. But she also has modern and progressive views. She believes in gay rights and the openness of the ballot. Of course, it's odd how her views are expressed to the audience through a summation voiceover from Zoey. As such, it's taking it a little away from Ana and making it more of how Zoey reacts to it. She is becoming politically engaged knowing that her friends have different views and she's caught in the middle of them. That's odd because Ana's perspective is very interesting. She acts just as crazy as Aaron does throughout this episode. And that does carry consequences.

Aaron and Ana stage competing protests. They each show up in the space with the proper documents. Dean Parker is the one caught in the middle wondering why he is made out to be the villain in this story. He's trying to listen to the concerns of his students. But in the process, he's the one getting hurt both emotionally and physically. It's not surprising that this event takes a violent turn. It seems like nothing more than some shoving that rattles a few people up. But it shows the deep divides of the beliefs on campus. Both Aaron and Ana are passionate about what they're preaching. And yet, they refuse to see that their selfish desires to be proven right is ultimately doing more harm than good. Someone could have gotten seriously injured. The aftermath of this event forces Dean Parker to eliminate all of the safe spaces on campus. This episode argues why the need for those environments is a good thing even though they are often ridiculed by adults for not preparing the children for the real world. But the real world is what this particular generation makes it. So yes, Luca can argue that the point of college is becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. As a whole though, it's an institution still designed to give college students the freedom to grow and live in the real world as young adults while still providing a structure for them to feel loved and cared for. The divisions of politics threatens to destroy all of that. Parker thinks making everything the same is the solution. He can't have different groups on campus fighting with each other. But Zoey is ultimately the one who gets the two sides to listen to one another.

Zoey starts simply by listening to her roommate. Again, it's a conversation that happens mostly offscreen. Then, she goes to Aaron who immediately shuts her down. That moment is actually dramatized. That's an important distinction. It makes it seem as if Aaron's cause needs to be justified in a much more open and honest way. He's the one who seems more selfish because he refuses to see how anyone could disagree with him. He is surprised by Zoey's reaction throughout this entire story. She doesn't get anywhere quickly with him. But she persists nevertheless. She makes sure that this group of friends stays intact. That has always been very important to her. She's valued these college friendships. She cares about her friends and wants to help them avoid making huge mistakes. She sees this debate as being potentially devastating to the bond of these friends. Sky and Jazz just see it for the entertainment value. They just want to watch a fight. Nomi tries to become engaged through it as well through her own oppression. But it's still fundamentally a story about Aaron, Ana and Zoey. Two of them stand opposed. The other brings them together and is able to save the dorm. As such, it seems like Zoey is the straight woman of the group who is malleable depending on the needs of the plot. But it's also engaging to see her engaged with the process. Her friends have these strong opinions and she's coming to learn that she needs to believe in something as well while being mindful of how her actions affect the world around her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Safe and Sound" was written by Helen Krieger & Emily G. Miller and directed by Silver Tree.
  • In her voiceover, Zoey makes a couple of references to her father and grandmother getting into arguments pertaining to the current presidential administration. Those are funny references even though they mostly revolve around Omarosa. It also gets me thinking about who from the Johnson family I want to see next on this show. Ruby sure would be fun.
  • Of course, Zoey's family shouldn't be the only ones seen on this show. It would be great to see some of the relatives of the other characters as well. Dean Parker is Nomi's uncle but not a lot of attention has been called to that fact. Meanwhile, it's important here that Ana speaks passionately about her grandfather being imprisoned for saying the wrong things in Cuba.
  • Last week ended with the suggestion of a possible romantic reunion between Zoey and Luca. They came to really respect the work they were doing together as fashion students. That bond is still personal and real here as well. Of course, it mostly plays as a healthy competition between the two over who is being the best intern at Teen Vogue.
  • Plus, this episode ends with the tease that there is the possibility of Zoey and Aaron reuniting as a couple. It's a weird closing scene. It's not really a self-contained joke. It offers some summation of the overall episode. But it mostly just exists to show these two characters together enjoying the moment and being friends.
  • It's funny that Dean Parker notes just how difficult it is to have Charlie as a professor at this university. Black-ish has always enjoyed the running jokes of him mysteriously being older than he appears and constantly forgetting his son. And now, Parker just bluntly talks about Charlie not having a social security number while also being legally dead. That's funny.