Grown-ish has had a lot of pressure to deal with since the announcement of the Freeform series in May 2017. There have been minor concerns and critiques as details of the show have taken shape, including the idea that the social media promotion feels a bit contrived with all the Gen Z buzz-terms. The cast is noticeably erring on the lighter side of the melanin spectrum (which they have time to correct in later episodes, and I sincerely hope they do). But the core of Grown-ish’s pressure, however, has stemmed from one glaring comparison: is this show the heir apparent to A Different World?
It’s an easy comparison to make, considering the steps leading up to the inception of Grown-ish are points of parity to A Different World: a successful show about a middle-class Black family, the daughter goes off to college, a spin-off ensues highlighting her collegiate experience. While there are points of difference, the strongest being that Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) goes to a PWI and not a HBCU, the set-up is uncanny. The interest for a show like A Different World in this modern age has been unwavering, even 25 years after its final air date. It ended when I was two years old, but its syndication kept it alive in my household and impacted my young adult life. And though I went to a PWI like Zoey, I searched for and found Black mentors and friends like the ones I saw on that series.
Since then, we’ve had television shows where we followed Black female leads to college (Moesha, The Parkers, Sister, Sister, etc). We’ve even had a modern take on the Black student PWI experience last year (Netflix’s Dear White People). All these shows are different and highlight different experiences of college life. But I saw myself and others putting a unique burden on Grown-ish to cover the exact same ground A Different World did. This is often the consequence of putting critically acclaimed television on a pedestal; if the new premise is similar to the original one, we don’t give the new premise space to grow and breathe. Mindful of this, I watched the first three episodes with as much as an unbiased lens as humanly possible. And it made my viewing experience better because of it.
Where Grown-ish succeeds is how relatable the core characters are without feeling forced. The show definitely thrives being on Freeform as opposed to ABC because we get bold and unfiltered conversations. Marketing aside, we don’t get the annoying “how do you do, fellow kids?”-eque over-usage of phrases like “it’s lit” and “woke.” The dialogue is natural which matches the after-school activities the students get into. Zoey and her friends curse, drink, smoke, sometimes take drugs, and hook up. As the lead, Zoey is more “green” than her friends but she dabbles in most of their fun. Good or bad, they make their decisions and it doesn’t turn into an after-school special moment. It’s truly the flaws of the characters that make the show worthwhile.
We also get a distinctive feature of Zoey breaking the fourth wall, which is more Saved By The Bell than anything. It doesn’t necessarily advance the show to another level, but rather it’s refreshing and comical to get insider access to Zoey’s inner thoughts. Having her independent from the Johnson Clan for the first three episodes is also a strength of the show, establishing the spin-off’s independence and giving it the opportunity to gain its sea legs.
The series is not without some shortcomings, however. Having Charlie Telphy (Deon Cole), while hilarious as a professor at California University, is an odd connection to Black-ish that in a way diminishes the importance of separating the show from its origins. The use of text bubbles as a visual display on screen has been used ad nauseam on a lot of modern shows and frankly, it’s time to retire it. And while each episode isn’t connected to the last, some episodes’ end on a note where you would like some questions answered in the episode following it and never get it. This could be a stylistic choice by the creator to display fluidity of the daily college life, but it does leave some storylines open-ended.
Regardless, Grown-ish made me check myself and my expectations. In an odd way, watching the first few episodes reminded me of the discourse after the release of The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren stressed in the center of that film that we need to “let the past die” and “kill it if [we] have to.” The quote itself was a call to action to the viewers who had strong opinions of how they thought their heroes and the heirs of those heroes needed to perform. With this series, creator Kenya Barris is forging ahead beyond what we expect, and giving the story the opportunity to develop and grow on its own.
We should always respect the foundation A Different World set for a show such as this. But we also should kill the comparisons if we have to.