When you step into grown-ish, it’s easy to expect the warm fuzzies of its predecessor black-ish, a purely traditional family sitcom that still manages to tackle The Hard Stuff every now and then. But, Freeform’s grown-ish isn’t ABC’s black-ish, in the same way college freshman Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) isn’t her father Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson).
Within the new comedy’s first two episodes, we see Zoey struggling with a flirtation with prescription pill abuse, general existential uncertainty, and a serious unrequited crush. While that third crisis takes up major real estate in Zoey’s anxious mind — as she continuously claims to be “stalking” cute older boy Aaron Jackson (Trevor Jackson) — romance isn’t going to be her saving grace amid the chaos of higher education. No, as grown-ish proves in its hour-long series premiere, Zoey’s real savior at college will be female friendship.
Series opener “Late Registration” begins with Zoey feeling guilty about something so heinous she won’t even reveal it via narration until the episode is nearly over. That means she isn’t only hiding her misdeed from the people around her — she’s hiding it from herself. We eventually learn her high crime was going against girl code by abandoning her new friend, Ana Torres (Francia Raisa), when Ana got dangerously drunk at a party. Ana’s day drinking adventure took a turn so terrible, she puked in a kiddie pool in front of dozens of strangers; Zoey’s original sin is leaving the new girl to deal with the literal mess alone.
From this moment on Zoey doesn’t exactly feel like Zoey, because such an egregious offense isn’t Zoey. The second she walked away from a screaming, vomit-covered Ana, Dre Johnson’s favorite daughter lost a piece of herself. When Ana moves into Zoey’s dorm room for plot-driving reasons, her rightly spiteful new roomie becomes a walking, talking, bizarrely always sleeping, tell-tale heart.
That is why the pair’s emotional, colorful, much-needed detente at the end of second episode “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe” feels so cathartic. There’s a tension crackling between an unmoored Zoey and a furious Ana. When their issues are finally resolved, there are endless layers to be found. For Zoey, she is forced to reckon with her own insecurities as she enters a huge new chapter of her life, along with her newfound reliance on Adderall as a way to juggle the growing demands of college. It’s likely the stress of failing Ana didn’t help with either dilemma.
Yet, the conversation doesn’t only give us a look into the depths of Zoey’s soul. We also see how the entire party catastrophe colored Ana’s first days at California University. As a Miami native, she is now suffering the growing pains of being the farthest away from her family in her life. Now, she hasn’t made a single friend, and the one person she did trust left her in pool of her own puke.
These are two “messed up” young women, as Zoey says in narration, who can only get through the next four years with the support of each other. When we see their “Princess Diamond”-tuned dance party, it’s clear this is the first time either Zoey or Ana has been fully herself since stepping onto the Cal U campus.
Zoey’s other female friends similarly add some much-needed complexity to grown-ish, although they don’t exactly have the kind of large emotional moments Ana is gifted with. Twins Jazlyn (Chloe Bailey) and Skyler Forster (Halle Bailey) push viewers to question why we expect so much from Black women athletes, and therefore Zoey is forced to do the same. The wonderful Nomi Segal (Emily Arlook) is simply the wild card realist who’s equally ready to tell our heroine the cold hard truth as she is to try to track down Jason Derulo for Hollywood Hills sex. She almost succeeds at both activites, since Derulo's cousin is a welcome consolation prize.
While Zoey’s crush Aaron, CU’s wokest bae, might be fun, their burgeoning relationship doesn’t offer up the same spark as her friendships. That’s likely because we only see the Black Student Union leader though Zoey’s eyes, so he’s left fairly one-dimensional by the end of “Vibe.” At this point, grown-ish simply paints him as a thoughtful, dreamy, Black culture advocate without a single flaw in the world. Aaron is so great, he even took his and Zoey's shared late-night “Drones Class,” taught by black-ish favorite Charlie (Deon Cole), on purpose. So, Zoey hangs on Aaron’s every word or invitation, yet they’re all pretty benign — and that’s the whole joke. Our usually-confident Zoey is making mountains out of molehills for some boy who’s not even saying anything to her.
Although it’s interesting to watch Zoey wrestle with the morality of pill popping and girl code breaking, the same can’t be said for her losing all sense over Aaron. It’s especially tough to watch “Vibe’s” pizza scene, as she forces her way into a seat next to the object of her affection. By the middle of it, you realize everything is cringe-worthy because that kind of oblivious behavior is exactly something her often unaware dad Dre would pull. Cool girl Zoey, on the other hand, would usually never trespass against societal mores in such a shameless way.
We can hope now that Zoey is on the path back to herself after that heart-to-heart chat with Ana, she’ll stop feeling uncharacteristically falling all over herself for Aaron. But, her response to Aaron’s after-midnight “U up?” text — popping a sworn-off Adderall pill — suggests otherwise.
Thankfully, we can have every confidence Ana and the rest of Zoey’s girls will be ready to pick up the pieces if necessary.
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