“Ever since I got here, I haven’t been myself,” says college freshman Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) during the premiere of new Freeform series “Grown-ish.” The moment of vulnerability arrives after Zoey realizes she doesn’t like the person she’s become. Drugs, parties, and boys distract her during her first weeks at college, so she swears them off. Then, in the last scene of the episode, she gets a text from a sophomore boy (!) and seems ready to fall into her old ways again.
Television offers lots of shows about high school (“The Goldbergs,” “13 Reasons Why,” even “Young Sheldon” in a way) and post-college life (“The Bold Type” and recently concluded “Girls”), but Freeform — formerly ABC Family — is aiming for Generation Z and young millennials with a new show about college, “Grown-ish.”
The show’s writers portray the consequences of pursuing hedonism in college, yet don’t provide any alternatives for a student who doesn’t want to be “lame.” Yes, main character Zoey spells out who’s lame in the premiere: it’s the kids sitting in the quad behind a booth that says “Build a Wall” and a gaggle of awkward Jewish guys trying to be cool. But what else would you expect from ABC?
A TV Pedigree
“Grown-ish” is a spinoff of Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated “Black-ish,” an ABC show about an upper-middle-class black family. When oldest daughter Zoey goes to college, the camera follows her for her own sitcom that premiered on January 3 with two episodes. Ads for the show have been on blast on Facebook and Twitter, so if you’re a young person, odds are you’ve heard of it, even if you don’t plan on watching.
“Grown-ish” isn’t just another teen show. It’s smartly written (references to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and author James Baldwin flow as naturally as jokes about weed) and is at least trying to meet college students where they are. The writers seem to be reassuring young viewers they have time to figure it all out. But what “figured out” looks like on the show versus should look like in real life are two different things.
“Grown-ish” star Shahidi boasts 1.5 million followers on Instagram (the currency of fame in this social media age). She has been profiled by The New York Times and Forbes for blending acting and activism (she’s been linked to Black Lives Matter). Michelle Obama wrote Shahidi’s recommendation letter for Harvard University, where she’ll enroll this year, and she interviewed Hillary Clinton at a Teen Vogue Summit last year. So yeah, she’s definitely being touted as a Gen Z standout.
In its first episodes, Zoey’s life enters a downward spiral when she does the “college thing.” She betrays a new friend at her first college party. She gets stuck in a crazy professor’s pointless class, where she meets the kids who become her supporting cast, “Breakfast Club” style. She puts off writing a paper on Ruth Bader Ginsburg until it seems like an Adderall-fueled all-nighter is her only hope.
About a Boy
In the middle of all this, Zoey’s trying to get the attention of sophomore Aaron (Trevor Jackson). Grades don’t seem to be on her mind even though she’s, you know, in college. In fact, the audience doesn’t even learn what majors she’s interested in. I’ll give the writers a few more episodes before crying “Underdeveloped character!”
Meanwhile, her buddies tell her she’s having a hard time at college because she hasn’t found “her thing,” meaning a way to let loose. Mellow fashion student Luca offers her marijuana. Crush Trevor wants her to go to a party with him. Zoey does, and spends the whole night passing out red Solo cups to partiers when he abandons her.
Basically, Zoey learns that college life isn’t as glamorous as movies make it out to be. Luckily, at the end of episode, she finds a supportive friend in roommate Ana (a Cuban-American Republican, so it’ll be interesting to see where the writers take this relationship).
“We’ve been caught up worrying what other people thought,” she tells Ana. “We’ve crossed so many lines we never thought we would cross instead of being ourselves.”
She realizes she wants to be different from the partiers and addicts, some of whom have become her friends. But she doesn’t want to be lame. And that is Zoey’s dilemma: she wants to hang out with the cool kids and do what they do, without having any of their problems. But that’s not how life works.
Only time will tell whether the writers realize that “lame” is the new “smart” — for Zoey to avoid real-world problems like sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and failed classes she might need to ditch the “cool” crowd that’s going nowhere fast. Or maybe in this fictional TV universe she’ll get the best of both worlds.
It seems “Grown-ish” might fall into the teen show cliché of thinking being “real” means packing in as many conventional college problems (pregnancy, drug addiction, toxic relationships) as possible. But maybe — and this is the outcome I’m hoping for –– we’ll watch Zoey become a woman who knows how to resist peer pressure, is a leader, and doesn’t need a crutch to get her through college. Heaven knows that just taking a full course load should be hard enough in itself.