Fans of black-ish might remember the time Zoey (Yara Shahidi) took her brother Junior (Marcus Scribner) to a party in Season 3: he was stunned to see kids drinking and eating pot-infused potato chips; she was nonplussed. But when she goes to her first party as a freshman at the fictional Southern California University on grown-ish, the parties will look a bit different. She'll see peers pop pills, do molly and chop up thick lines of cocaine — and that's in the first few minutes of the first episode.
Zoey, Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bo's (Tracee Ellis Ross) reliably sensible eldest child, might not be shocked to see open drug use, but for some viewers, grown-ish will be a jolt. It was born from a family sitcom, but her university adventure is not for kids, and it definitely ain't your Mama's college experience.
The shock isn't just for shock's sake. People of a certain age will see similarities between grown-ish and Different World, The Cosby Show spin-off that followed Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) as she sojourned to the fictional college Hillman. But today's college students live in a world entirely different from the one of 1993 when ADW went off the air. Zoey and her new Gen Z friends grew up with all the information in the world in their hands. They grew up with unfiltered exposure to movies and music and Vines referencing drugs and sex — not to mention images of terrorism, randos becoming internet famous and the first reality show president. So while grown-ish's PG-13 language and depictions of binge drinking, drug dealing, hooking up (as well as, yes, some actual school work) will surprise black-ish fans, the material is simply honest. And by keeping it realer than a network sitcom could, grown-ish presents an authentic view of what Zoey and everyone else like her had to do out once leaving the nest: figure out how to be an adult.
"Honestly, as risqué as it is," Yara Shahidi told TV Guide at the premiere of the show in Los Angeles, "it is true to life and true to what they're navigating. What I appreciate about her story is that she's not perfect and yet you see her still find a way to thrive."
The departure from the source material is risky, and despite all the equity black-ish has earned — it's one of ABC's top five performers and has gotten eight Emmy noms and a Golden Globe for Tracee Ellis Ross — creator (of both shows) Kenya Barris has some jitters. "Going into this, it's scary for me because it's not like a laughy-laughy show," he told TV Guide. "People are expecting black-ish and that's not what it is. You watch and watch and you get more and more in. We want to see Zoey grow." On black-ish, Zoey was two toe taps from being a Ms. Goody Two Shoes — level-headed, responsible and even able to help her parents mitigate crises of their own creation. She was a bit smug, sure (aren't all teenagers though?) but basically a self-sufficient young adult enjoying free room and board. She knew her place in the suburban bubble of black-ish, and, like most shows that snap back to status quo at the end of 30 mins, rarely explored who she was outside the role of cool teen who's "twice as cool" because she's also black. And that was about the extent to which Zoey examined her black identity — viewers will remember how, in the seminal "Hope" episode, she cocoons herself from feeling too intensely as the family grappled with police brutality. Long story short, our girl's got some learning (and unlearning) to do.
On grown-ish, where she's free from the tyranny of her parents' central A/C and cable, she'll actually get the chance to explore and redefine how she relates to her identity. But the journey has a lot of speed bumps, and they come up fast. Her darker sides — selfishness, snootiness, a blissful absolution of identity politics — get explored on grown-ish. Her perfectionist traits, so helpful to parents of four other kids, become a hindrance too. In one of the three episodes sent to critics, Zoey discovers Adderall. Unlike a sitcom, the storyline doesn't have Zoey strung out, "learning a valuable lesson" and vowing never to touch the narcotic again. Instead, she makes multi-dimensional decisions — not all of them good — about how and when to use the pills, like an actual adult would. It's not a one and done situation, either. "That's carried through [the season]," Shahidi said, "and what I appreciate is that it is the undertone of the show - how she maneuvers 10 million things at once."
Relationships, particularly with boys, factor into her matriculation too. She crushes way too hard on Aaron (American Crime's Trevor Jackson), clumsily hurling all her feelings at a guy whose bro-ish sensibility and hormonal underdevelopment makes for awkwardness all around. She also thirsts after baby Basquiat Luca Hall (Luka Sabbat) — with both relationships asking what it means to date in the era of the eggplant emoji. Do "You up?" texts count as courtship? Does hooking up mean making out or sex or what old folks used to call heavy petting? Confusing courtship rituals also let grown-ish explore 21st century manhood in a fresh way, as the young men in her circle must themselves pin down appropriate male roles and rites in a culture that's torched all the old ones. Said Jackson, "At that age, you learn through experience, not knowing what to do. [Aaron] is inconsiderate, but not knowing he's being inconsiderate." Finding one's identity is the through line of the show — and that learning comes through mistakes that have consequences and repercussions that don't simply disappear at the end of the episode, like in typical network sitcom format. Those struggle apply to everyone, not just Zoey.
The people who become her crew — corralled together by the fate of being in a class taught by Dre's oddball co-worker Charlie (Deon Cole) — are multicultural, but more importantly show how getting to grown means having one's ways of seeing the world shaped by interactions with other people, not all of them pretty.
"College is a place we get challenged," said Freeform CEO Tom Ascheim. Grown-ish's home on the cable network allows the show to portray situations and language broadcast can't, but that's all rooted in the story. "It's very honest about the world we're facing — some of which is intimidating, but that's what happens when you go to college." Zoey's friends call her, and each other, on their bullsh-t, in that exact language, and they don't hold back. "When it's sanitized," he said, "it feels weird."
Her clique includes Jazz and Sky (Halle and Chloe Bailey, the sisters who wrote and sing the theme song), track star twins from the inner city who are more sinister than they appear; she has a Cuban-American Republican roommate Ana (Francia Raisa); a Hindu friend Vivek (Jordan Buhat) with some seedy habits; and a bisexual Jewish homegirl Miriam (Emily Arlook). All of them check Zoey, and each other, non-stop. Their sometimes brutal interactions show what it's like to come of age in, yes, a different world. As messy as they all are in their own ways, they're easy to root for because they're all woke, well-intentioned young people looking to contribute something positive to humanity. They are in college after all.
"I think this generation has more on their shoulders than any since the Vietnam War," Barris said. "They've got gender politics, identity politics, politics, environment, the economy...They get s--t talked about them because they're the social media generation but once you get beyond that veneer, there's something special there."
Indeed, the cast is not only uber-cool, enlightened and optimistic — Chloe x Halle, appeared in Beyonce's Lemonade and Luka Sabbat is an influencer who went to prom in a tux personally sent to him by Tom Ford — but they enjoy a natural chemistry that feels organic on screen. And of course, Yara Shahidi herself is the poster child for progressive swag; Michelle Obama wrote her recommendation letter for Harvard, where she'll be heading in 2018. Her specialness is hard to deny. At the premiere, she talked about the significance of a woman of color represented on TV, about intersectionality, about the cast's influence on helping people seeing each other as "worthy of." She's got her head on straight. Zoey, maybe not as much. How does she fare by the end of the season? Said Barris: "She ends up f---d up!"
grown-ish premieres Wed. Jan. 3 at 8/7c on Freeform.