Is it just me or does “Grown-ish” feel unrealistic? Meaning, whose college experience and freshman year, if we’re being specific, is this show supposed to reflect? Before it aired, everyone heralded the possibility of “Grown-ish” being “A Different World” reincarnate. People were excited about the diversity of the cast, mind you a cast that lacks anyone in a major role that wouldn’t pass a paper bag test, and seeing this period in life depicted on the television screen again. And while I’ll support almost anything Black Girl Magic, I’m going to also reserve the right to criticize and challenge it per what Baldwin taught me.
“Grown-ish” just aired it’s season finale last night on Freeform (the new ABC family) and I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed by not only the finale but first season in general. Before the transition to college, we saw Zoey played by Yara Shahidi, progressing through high school and dealing with her sometimes crazy but usually well-intentioned family on Black-ish. That Zoey in my personal opinion was pretty vapid and self-absorbed. It appears this behavior has carried over to college with twinges of her learning to care about causes larger than herself and her friends. More than being about adjusting to college with all the internal and external changes that brings, “Grown-ish” has chronicled Zoey getting pretty much everything she wanted from her first semester with a few easily overcome obstacles thrown in for good measure. Which is why it feels so unrealistic to myself and some of my peers.
The show begins with Zoey making a terrible impression on her now roommate by leaving her drunk and alone at a party. Yet, they still magically end up friends. She somehow then falls into dating the schools top basketball player who is also a contender for the NBA’s first draft pick, until he outs her virginity and then leaves her to pursue his NBA dreams. She also takes Adderall from her drug dealer friend to help her with “classes” when in reality she’s just popping pills to get through the day. Zoey also lands the internship of her dreams at Teen Vogue which if you watched Black-ish makes sense given that she shadowed there. Then she almost loses it by outing a not yet released fashion collection via social media, but doesn’t because that would make too much sense. And to add to the there’s no way this is real life list, Zoey goes back and forth between three guys over the course of the season and in the season finale, they all confess their feelings for her. Leaving her to choose the one she wants to be with while seeming to end the other relationships amicably.
“Grown-ish” feels unrealistic not only because of some of the issues raised but because of how they’re dealt with and handled. “Grown-ish” grazed subjects of colorism, bi-sexuality/sexual fluidity, and safe spaces but often lacked any real nuance in the conversations had. For example Jazz, played by Chloe of Chloe & Halle, complains in the episode focused on colorism and dating that she can’t seem to find a man on campus. By the end of the episode, she has the Black man of her freshman dreams in the form of Diggy Simmons. I went to a PWI. That’s not how that works.
Where “Grown-ish” like “Black-ish” for me often gets it wrong is in its bite-sized issues and bite-sized solutions or commentary. You can guarantee there will be some type of problem in an episode, a shopping habit gone bad or the pitfalls of social media, and a happy-go-lucky solution to the problem by the end of the thirty minutes. But, life and college for sure don’t work like that.
My freshman year was riddled with wondering why the hell Cornell accepted me, trying to make friends in a community where I just didn’t seem to fit in, being in love with someone back home in MI yet interested in exploring those around me in NY, wondering why I wasn’t accepted to X club, enrichment program, or internship, and working multiple jobs in order to afford dresses for parties and events. And I know it’s just TV, but if Yara, Kenya, and everyone else involved with “Grown-ish” want folks to continue watching the show, then I think we’re going to have to see some depth. Everything can’t be tightly wrapped up in thirty minutes of TV. And the writers particularly are going to have to be willing to really sit with the issues they want to bring to the forefront and go deeper. I want to see episodes that depict the food insecurity so many students face, how to deal with a class you legitimately don’t understand despite your best efforts, facing the rejection of not getting your dream job or internship, and the paralyzing fear of not knowing what you want to do with the next semester, yet alone post-graduation.
I expected more than watching Zoey aimlessly wander through life and love while also getting everything she wants from both. I expected to have a narrative other than Zoey’s relationships be the main arc of the series. All season we watched her go from Luca to Aaron to Cash to Aaron to Luca again. Ultimately picking Luca in the end, when who she really needed to pick was herself.
Looking back on my college and even post-grad experience, I wish I would have taken to heart the fact that relationships actually can wait and spent more time choosing myself instead of getting lost in a potential partner. Zoey, like many college freshmen and even recent graduates, still has so much to learn about herself. Though I understand her feeling like she has something different with Luca and you never know what that has the potential to grow into, I also know from experience what it’s like to lose yourself in “different” before you even actually “find yourself” and I want more for her than that. I want more for representations of college life and being a young adult for womxn, especially Black girls than that.
“Grown-ish” missed the mark on telling the story of a well rounded first semester (if we’re assuming the episodes function as weeks here) of college. But, since Freeform picked it up for a second season, we have time to see if it will deepen as it goes along. It took Debbie Allen getting ahold of “A Different World” for that show to really depict the HBCU experience. And while I don’t see Kenya Barris giving up “Grown-ish”, we can hope that as Yara ages herself, the show will age with her. So many movements from DREAMERS to #BlackLivesMatter to #TakeBackTheNight are happening on college campuses today and it would be a shame if a show like “Grown-ish” didn’t actually and effectively engage them. It would be a shame if the activism and outspokenness that we’ve seen so far from Yara didn’t translate to her first feature role. It would be a shame if “Grown-ish” misses its opportunity to make a lasting mark on the culture like “A Different World.”
Being in college, a recent grad, or just young millennial in 2018 is unrealistic in a lot of ways. We have more access to the world around us than any prior generation, yet it seems like our borders and communities of engagement are constantly getting smaller. Women have more access to healthcare and career opportunities, yet our bodies are still constantly under attack. There’s finally some space to talk about toxic masculinity, even though we’re not where we should be on that yet. Gun violence still plaguages our society, but we might actually be in a moment where we have a chance to make some headway on that issue.
Our times may be uncertain and unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean our TV shouldn’t engage them practically and pragmatically. “Grown-ish” needs to grow up.
Photo: Teen Vogue