Grown-ish, the Gen Z Black-ish spinoff, is slowly figuring out what it wants to be


Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 25 through 31 is “Back & Forth,” the first season finale of Freeform’s Grown-ish.

Out of all the characters on Black-ish to get a spinoff, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) was both a logical choice and a limiting one. Her going to college was an easy way in to A Different World overflowing with the kinds of political and social controversies that Black-ish specializes in breaking down. But among all the outsized personalities in the Johnson family — the best of which are Tracee Ellis Ross’s goofy mama bear Rainbow and Marsai Martin’s diabolical Diane, don’t @ me — Zoey’s always been the least defined.

Zoey’s sparse defining characteristics were that she was lowkey glamorous, the apple of her father’s eye, the high school queen bee who tended to embrace apathy rather than get involved in anything too messy. None of these things made for an especially magnetic character on Black-ish, but they are useful for what Grown-ish — Zoey’s #millennial Freeform spinoff — wants to do.

Throughout the 13-episode first season, Zoey wandered her new campus with curious eyes, collecting a group of eclectic friends with stronger opinions than her. Whether these friends are arguing about safe spaces, bisexual erasure, or paying college athletes, there are at least a couple times per episode that Zoey — using a wry but clunky combination of voiceover and turns to the camera — says that hey, [x friend] just might have a point. She’s not quite a cipher so much as a lightning rod, attracting vehement perspectives that strike her every now and then before the electricity wears off.

It doesn’t always work; the strain of having to parse and find neat solutions for complex topics shows more often than not, and Zoey’s vague characterization does her no favors when she’s imparting sweeping generalizations about how her generation thinks. (Maybe the weirdest example, and therefore my personal favorite, is when she tries to draw a connection between people not wanting to have face-to-face conversations with how all of Generation Z apparently loves Drake.)

The show often feels like a tug of war between older writers who are confused by their collegiate characters and younger ones working in realistic slang when they can. But when it lets Zoey’s friends get into a playfully argumentative groove, Grown-ish hits moments that let its teen characters get messier than Zoey ever would — moments that the show, with its promise to Get Real on Gen Z drama, seriously needs to keep itself afloat.

So the season finale, which focuses solely on Zoey having to choose between three guys, isn’t exactly representative of how Grown-ish tried to tackle Important Topics every week. But it does something the rest of the season struggled to do, forcing Zoey to make up her mind and take a step toward, as she says, “figuring out who you really are, maybe before you’re even ready.”

“Back & Forth” uses Grown-ish’s usual format in a new, forward-facing way


Freeform

The smartest thing “Back & Forth” does is unleash Zoey’s opinionated friends on her own life. It’s not like the show hasn’t tried this before — especially in a post-breakup episode set during a campus-wide blackout — but this time, with an entire season behind it, the episode finds more weight in the clashes.

What’s more, the episode makes each of the guys Zoey’s considering neatly symbolize a different path her life could take, making it even more crucial that she finds a way to stop waffling and figure out what it is she actually wants, not what she thinks she’s supposed to want.

First up is Aaron (Trevor Jackson), the first college guy Zoey ever had a crush on, who’s constantly trying, with mixed success, to champion causes and out-woke everyone in the room. He unexpectedly gets an advocate in Ana (Francia Torres), Zoey’s stickler roommate who argues that Aaron challenges her to think about things in a way she never would have otherwise.

Next is Cash (Da’Vinchi), the superstar basketball player who became Zoey’s first serious boyfriend — so serious, in fact, that he once asked her to ditch college to support him in the NBA, and is now considering deferring his NBA dreams to stay on campus for her. As track stars Jazz and Sky (Chloe and Halle Bailey, Grown-ish’s secret weapons) put it, Cash has equal parts ambition and affection for her. Doesn’t she want someone who’s actually going places?

Finally there’s Luca (Luka Sabbat), the magnetic, too-cool artist whom Zoey once accurately described as “baby Basquiat.” His insistence that he doesn’t care about much of anything except art he can describe as “flame” can be very frustrating, but as Zoey’s bluntest friend Nomi (Emily Arlook) points out, Zoey’s experience interning with him at Teen Vogue has been one of the most creatively enriching she’s had at college so far. As (an admittedly very stoned) Nomi insists, their connection is just “deeper.”

As her friends argue the merits of their chosen dude, Zoey sits in the middle as usual, blinking and swaying with every new point. Watching it, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense; clearly, she was going to walk away and pick herself, right?

Wrong. After letting Aaron and Cash down easy, Zoey picks Luca, showing up at his dorm where she gets to see the giant mural of her he painted. “If you can find something deeper, something different,” Zoey’s voiceover tells us as she beams at him with giant heart eyes, “you never know what it might grow into.”

Would I have rather Zoey picked herself over three whatever dudes? Sure. But I get why she and Grown-ish went with Luca in the end. He’s the least safe choice, one that will make Zoey dig a little deeper to figure out what it is she actually wants. After all, finding her own identity is exactly what college — and hopefully, season two of Grown-ish — is all about.

The first season of Grown-ish is currently available on Hulu.

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