Wednesday's episode of Black-ish, "Liberal Arts," was a backdoor pilot — a pilot episode for a spin-off disguised as an episode of the mother series — for a potential spin-off focused on Zoey Johnson's (Yara Shahidi) adventures at college written by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and executive producer Larry Wilmore.
At the start of the episode, when Dre (Anthony Anderson) is dropping Zoey off for her two-day orientation, he begins to narrate his feelings, as he always does, until Zoey interrupts him.
"Dad, I can tell my own story," she says, and then her perspective takes over.
Zoey, whose lack of a social conscience has always been a source of consternation for her mother (Tracee Ellis Ross), is not interested in learning anyone's preferred pronouns or joining the vegan barbecue club — until she meets Aaron (Trevor Jackson), an extremely hot student who asks her to join the Black Student Union. Meanwhile, it turns out Dre never turned in her housing application, and when she goes to talk to President Schock (Matt Walsh) and Dean Parker (Chris Parnell), a misunderstanding leads to Schock deciding to shut down the college's black dorm. So she has no place to live, and worse, Aaron is disgusted with her.
All seems lost until she wanders into her dad's coworker Charlie's (Deon Cole) late-night marketing class, and he inspires her to be passionate and advocate for herself. So she marches back into the president's office and works out a deal to keep the dorm open, secures herself a place to live and makes two new friends, all while making a salient point about segregation vs. congregation.
If this seems like it's supposed to be the A Different World to Black-ish's Cosby Show, that's because it is. Kenya Barris is making no attempt to hide the fact that The Cosby Show's college spin-off is a big influence.
"For me growing up, A Different World had a lot to do with me going off to school," he tells TVGuide.com. "I would love for this to have a tenth of the effect that that show had on my generation."
Anchoring a show would be a big job for the 17-year-old Shahidi, but Barris is confident that she's up for it. Plus, she'll have help from two comedy masters in Parnell and Walsh. The latter is a co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade and an integral part of Veep, and the former's IMDB page is basically a list of everything funny in the past 15 years. And American Crime's Jackson is a very promising young actor, too.
The spin-off has a lot of potential. Following Zoey as she grows from a spoiled kid into a worldly young woman would be fun. to see her have the awakening (or in the parlance of the times, a-woke-ening) that so many people have when they go to college. Shahidi has emerged as an eloquent spokeswoman for social issues, and it would be a wise move to remake Zoey in Yara's image. Black-ish is at its best when it's talking about the real world. As the episode says, passion is important.
ABC also has a possible college spin-off for The Goldbergs in the works, and if that's paired with the Zoey spin-off ABC would have a nice little college mini-block. If they're good, campus comedies would officially be having a moment. (Have you watched Dear White People? It's really good.)
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.