When the spin off to the hit ABC show ‘Black-ish’ was announced in late 2016, I was incredibly excited. As a teen I never got shows for people my age that actually looked like me or would discuss issues I could relate to. I had hoped that ‘Grown-ish’ would fill this void of representation I had been missing but, unfortunately, it did not. But, before I start with the negatives, let me list some things I do love about the show, because there are some upsides to it: Chloe & Halle have the best comedic timings, I enjoy the intro music, the soundtrack is always bomb, I like the social issues that they attempt to deal with even if they often miss the mark, and I do love the fact that the show is primarily about a young Black girl .
Now, onto what I don’t like.
The introduction of Zoey’s friends is basically force-fed to us. They all attend the same night school class and, whilst we discover Charlie from ‘Black-ish’ is their professor, Zoey narrates a quick backstory of each character. When it comes to Zoey, we discover that she has done something terrible and — without spoiling the episode — it ends up with us finding out the group’s deepest, darkest secrets. Once they bare it all, they start bawling and — though I’m not saying that it could not happen — it doesn’t feel real. There’s no organic growth of the friendships or any sign of Zoey struggling to fit in. We’re thrust into the middle of her issues and the friendship group practically materializes into being, which leaves the audience feeling like we’ve been robbed of an entire arc. Many of the issues I have with Zoey’s character development — which I’ll get into later on — would’ve been solved if we had witnessed her growth in this way. As anyone who has ever been a new student knows, making new friends is something that can change you for better or worse.
As stated in Affinity and Blavity, ‘Grown-Ish’ has a big colourism issue. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse over the head at this point, but I just can’t write this review without mentioning it. There are no darkskin people on the show, which plays into the systemic favoring of lighter people with more eurocentric features, over darker skin and visibly Black features. In the episode about how Black women are deemed as less attractive and dateable, even by Black men (which is misogynoir, not colourism), there is one dark skinned girl who simply exists as a prop for Aaron to convince the group that he does not have a type. That’s it. And, when two girls approached her on Twitter to discuss this, leading actress Yara Shahidi blocked them, which I found to be quite nasty (she called one up to apologize later). Of course, we can’t solely blame Yara — not because of her youth, as age doesn’t excuse that kind of ignorance — but because she isn’t the casting director and I feel like a lot of the decisions go way past her pay grade. However, I do hope that in the future she’ll be more open to these discussions, and that ‘Grown-ish’ will realize that they can’t just have an entire cast the shade of a paper bag.
Look, ‘Grown-ish’ is not ‘Black-ish’. What made ‘Black-ish’ so successful was that the concept was fairly new, it was inventive and audiences felt like we actually learnt something episode by episode. The freshness is lost with this spinoff, and the attempts to copy the formula feel stagnant and forced.
My issue with a lot of teen shows is the decision to choose social commentary over good story writing. An example of this going well is the recently premiered Netflix show ‘On My Block’, which combines social commentary with a coming of age story. We aren’t force-fed lessons on gun violence but instead actually shown how harmful it is. Immigration is not a plot point used to win an argument but instead we see that it actually tore a family apart. This differs wildly from ‘Grown-ish’, which attempted to have an episode about safe spaces and getting along with the other side but somehow thought a right-winger Ana would realistically be friends with someone like Aaron in the first place?
From a writing perspective, it makes no sense for the ‘woke’ and supposedly socially aware Zoey not to bring up politics since the beginning of the show, and these issues should be organically integrated into the narrative and add to the characters’ growth, not forced into a single episode for the sake of some failed ‘social commentary’.
I feel as if a lot of the social commentary stems from the demographics of the writers room. They see that teens today are socially aware but fail to realize that it isn’t just for one episode. Teens who are genuinely interested in social awareness constantly use it within their lives and apply it to how they go about things. Instead of making a mockery of them with Aaron, who’s supposed to be the ‘socially aware’ character yet used as comedic relief, why not take them seriously?
PS. HIRE MORE TEEN AND YOUNG ADULT WRITERS YOU AGEISTS, I’VE SEEN YOUR IMBD CREDITS.
And, finally, my biggest issue with ‘Grown-ish’: ZOEY.
See, when we were introduced to Zoey in ‘Black-ish’ she was good in a small dose. She was that cool Black teen who repped Gen Z whilst being woke and stylish. A caricature, in my honest opinion, but a likable one. Yet, in ‘Grown-Ish’, Zoey’s perspective is the only one we get to see? She wasn’t a strong character to begin with, and they didn’t attempt to change her from the original mold given by ‘Black-ish’ to fix it.
Zoey, realistically, hasn’t grown: even when she broke up with her boyfriend, she didn’t learn anything about herself. Instead, Zoey continued to carry on with her messy situationship with two guys who had feelings for her, Aaron and Luka. Now, teens do this, I’m not saying they don’t, but I wonder… why are we supposed to suddenly feel bad that she has to choose between these guys when we are barely shown that she actually gives a damn about either boy outside of her telling her friends? It feels as if the relationships are simply a plot device to give her growth, but the growth isn’t actually there.
There’s a mini storyline in this show where Zoey is addicted to a drug for a while and she just gives it up. Though I have no personal experience with drug addiction, a realistic and respectful representation has to acknowledge the withdrawal that addicts go through, but ‘Grown-Ish’ doesn’t. We don’t get to see her struggle with withdrawal, we don’t get to see that she’s actually having an issue with the drug, nor do we get to see her talk about her relationship with her constant use. She just gives it up. Though it’s good that she quits and she does it for a good reason, the story just feels empty.
Zoey’s narration is also an issue: it felt cute and new-ish (pun not intended) at first, but quickly grew annoying. It’s not that Yara’s voice-overs are badly done, but there’s just way too much narration. Structurally, it makes no sense: why are we getting a narration introduction, 4th wall breaking within each scene or two and then an outro narration? The story is being spoon-fed to us and, honestly it feels like the writers can’t trust the audience to understand what’s going on. In ‘Black-ish’, the narration isn’t used to make sure the audience knows what’s going on at every second; it’s a resource to explain the set-up of the story and give us a conclusion. There’s no 4th wall breaking that feels out of place and unneeded. In ‘Grown-Ish’, on the other hand, it just becomes… a lot.
Now, let me make something clear: I’m not saying all of this because I want this show to fail. I really don’t. I keep watching because I have hope that it will get better. I want the writing to improve, I want the acting to get better and I want this show to be more representative of the people they’re trying to be take seriously. I think this show is a great opportunity for Black girls to have positive mainstream representation but, as it is, it just isn’t enough. I hope the second season can and will be better, but maybe I’m just being too optimistic.
Edited By: Andrea Merodeadora