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Grown-ish and the joy of watching a show hit its stride

When the lights go out on Grown-ish (Photo: Freeform/Tony Rivetti)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV.

If you’re spending part of the next three days charging through Everything Sucks!, Netflix’s latest all-in-one season premiere, I suspect you’re not alone. We’ll never know exactly how not alone you are; just speaking anecdotally, streaming binges have become as much of a long-weekend tradition as furniture deals and Tuesday morning hangovers. This year’s President’s Day offering doesn’t get my full endorsement, but the comedy about teens coming of age and coming out in the last year of the first Clinton administration isn’t entirely without its charms. It’s just that those charms never come together to form a satisfying whole, leaving a solid lead performance from Jahi Di’Allo Winston, some unpredictable needle drops, and an amusing command of montage orbiting a whole lot of unrealized potential.


Maybe Everything Sucks!’s inability to win me over felt more acute because I started watching it shortly after seeing a half-hour series about today’s youth hit its stride. I’ve been keeping up with Freeform’s Black-ish spin-off, Grown-ish, since its January premiere; it’s a potent, college-comedy-with-basic-cable-cursing chaser to its still-formidable parent series. It’s also a chance for star Yara Shahidi to soak up a spotlight that’s harder to find when she’s sharing the screen with Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne, Jenifer Lewis, and Anthony Anderson (and, let us not forget, the Machiavellian MVP of the Johnson clan: Marsai Martin as Diane), in a setting that allows her to play frazzled and vulnerable in ways the first three seasons of Black-ish didn’t. On that show, she plays a point of contrast: Zoey Johnson is the grounding force for her father’s histrionics, her mother’s control issues, and her younger brothers’ individual types of cluelessness. (Nobody contrasts or grounds Diane. They wouldn’t dare.)

In terms of style and content, the Grown-ish apple doesn’t fall far from the Black-ish tree: The voice-over narration and the topical subject matter are both there, both tailored toward the show’s younger characters and younger target audience. (Of all the ways the show folds social media into its point of view, Zoey directly addressing the camera in the style of a YouTuber or Instagram personality is the savviest.) It’s also surrounded its protagonist with a rich array of supporting characters, fellow kids who are just as sure, yet unsure, about their place in their world. And as of its seventh episode, Grown-ish finally has a firm grasp on where they fit into this story. It still starts with Zoey: “Un-Break My Heart” picks up with its main character in the midst of a self-imposed exile, dulling the pain of a breakup with junk food and Diane Lane movies. Her friends Ana (Francia Raisa), Nomi (Emily Arlook), Jazz (Chloe Bailey), and Sky (Halle Bailey) bust in to push their own therapeutic methods—“We’re taking you out to go dancing and drink irresponsible amounts of liquor”—but a power outage puts the kibosh on those plans.

What follows is an un-flashy method of exploring the relationships that have formed across the first half of the first season, a quasi-bottle episode in which Zoey’s dorm room becomes increasingly crowded with people and opinions, everybody weighing in on her romantic dilemma without ignoring their own evolving personas: Libertine Nomi pouring way-too-tall shots, twins Jazz and Sky suffering no bullshit, Ana letting it slip that the first guy to break her heart was also her cousin. (Or, in her words, “My Uncle John’s son.” She caught him making out with her mom’s sister. Family is a complicated thing.) The show’s flair with a visual gag is on fine display as well. When the blackout hits, Zoey retreats to her pajama cocoon in the blink of an eye; when her off-again, on-again hookup Aaron (Trevor Jackson) turns up at the door with a scented candle and a bottle of champagne, their friend Vivek (Jordan Buhat) pops into the background of the frame to demonstrate how unoriginal the ploy is.

Above all, it’s an amusing half hour spent in the company of a finely tuned cast. Grown-ish has things to say about campus life in 2018 and modern complications like prescription meds and the money made on the backs of student athletes. The episodes prior to “Un-Break My Heart” filled a void I didn’t know existed in my TV diet, a sweet spot halfway between Degrassi and Undeclared. But the social lives of the characters, the downtime that exists between classes, studying, fellowships, and jobs, demands that Grown-ish excel as a hangout show, too, the type that commands attention when the characters are just shooting the shit or ragging on one another at the student bar or on a dorm room floor. “Un-Break My Heart” is that type of scene, wall to wall, and it’s remarkable that the actors—Shahidi, Arlook, and Raisa especially—have been able to strike up such an authentic sense of friendship and camaraderie so quickly.


This is the type of thing I hope for whenever I start a new TV show: an early episode that shows the pieces clicking into place. (To name a couple of very A.V. Club examples of this happening on other shows: the debate episode of Community and “Tracy Does Conan” on 30 Rock.) But with more shows to choose from than ever before, it’s getting harder and harder to summon the patience for anything that doesn’t pull off an “Un-Break My Heart” in its first few weeks. While contributing to that glut of content, streaming series have also helped circumvent the wait-and-see predicament: Learning if a show is going to get its hooks into you becomes a matter of hours, rather than days. But when you’ve made the investment across the weeks, and you get a return like “Un-Break My Heart,” there’s little else like it, in any medium. And for a show about self-discovery like Grown-ish, it’s thematically appropriate, too.

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