The hardest thing about going off to college is leaving behind your life and family without becoming disconnected from them, the same can be said for a popular sitcom. Creating a spin-off that exists on its own merits but manages to retain its familiar charm is certainly not easy.
‘grown-ish’, the ‘black-ish’ spin-off lands on Disney+ (UK) on April 16th. It follows Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) as she begins a new chapter of her life, having left home and headed off to college. The series begins with Zoey talking her dad, Andre (Anthony Anderson), through his separation anxiety. “It hurts so bad!” He cries as he begs her to come home at the weekend so they can watch The Breakfast Club together. Viewers of ‘black-ish’ will be familiar with the fact that Zoey is (not so) secretly Dre’s favourite child.
During the early part of the series, ‘grown-ish’ is enough like ‘black-ish’ in tone and style to please fans of the latter, but different enough for it to stand on its own two feet: you could easily go straight into this series without having watched any of ‘black-ish’.
Zoey is her same cool, confident self. On the surface she’s ready to take the next step in her adult life, but underneath the same insecurities felt by most teenagers are present. The show, as you’d expect combines universal relationship comedy with social commentary. Balanced perfectly it’s told through Zoey’s experience of finding out who she is, whilst living up to the expectations placed on her. Where ‘black-ish’ is focused on Dre’ and his experiences the focus here is Zoey and hers, which obviously are very different.
There are plenty of new characters to get to know, episode one introduces Zoey’s new friendship group, who she compares to that of The Breakfast Club, a theme that carries through the pilot episode. Familiar faces from ‘black-ish’ make an appearance too, Dre’e weird coworker, Charlie (Deon Cole) shows up as the professor of Zoe’s midnight class on drones.
From the start ‘grown-ish’ knows exactly what it’s about, in the same way ‘black-ish’ does. Over 6 seasons black-ish has used the family comedy format to speak to its audience on a range of era defining issues, covering topics such as Obama, Black Lives Matter and Trump, and now, in an era when young people are more socially aware than ever, these issues are being shown in a new setting: a college campus which feels incredibly relevant to our time.
‘black-ish’ is focused on Black identity and culture in relation to a larger multiracial society, through the eyes and experience of Dre. Now, ‘grown-ish’ see’s Zoey as the focus as she experiences life at a liberal arts school where her classmates include Analisa (Francia Raisa), a Conservative Cuban American, and Vivek (Jordan Buhat) the son of Indian Immigrants, who’s so driven to get rich he resorts to pushing pills.
The storylines covered are very relevant to modern college life, Adderall use and hookup culture are covered, but what stands out is how it focuses on the difference of opinion and values. Zoey’s friendship group is incredibly diverse in every way possible and they don’t always see things the same way, so the show’s serious themes feel very authentic, and not forced in the way some sitcoms that deal with series issues can sometimes be.
The writing is solid, probably the standout star of the series, overseen by ‘black-ish’ creator Kenya Barris, the one-liners are sharp and witty. Charlie (Deon Cole) is delightful to see, if you like his character in ‘black-ish’ you’ll love him here, eccentric, weird and hilarious. Zoey (Yara Shahidi) is one of the standout performances on ‘black-ish’ and of course she’s brilliant here, with more screen time and a real opportunity to develop her character.
I’m well aware of how much I’ve used ‘black-ish’ to explain the premise of ‘grown-ish’, its intentional and its down to the fact of how well it has taken the latter’s format and run with it. There’s a feeling that the writers of this show have watched ‘black-ish’ with adoration and taken what they love about it and created the perfect spin-off. Similarities aside though, this is definitely its own show, it knows exactly what it is and it stands on its own 2 feet, perfectly.
‘grown-ish’ is everything you want a spinoff of your favourite sitcom to be. It takes what works and builds on it. It feels fresh and at the same time has enough familiar threads to keep it moored to its predecessor.