Grown-ish isn’t a bad show. I appreciate it for the work it’s doing in presenting its audience with some of the challenging issues that college and university students may be facing. I’ve only rarely seen topics like bisexuality, recreational drug use, and the exploitation of student athletes covered in mainstream media, and Grown-ish develops its ideas with a youthful energy about it, perfectly cementing the points it brings up in a contemporary perspective.
But as I watch Grown-ish, the question that arises in my mind is this: who on earth are these people on screen? Why is it that I can’t see them as real people?
In a strange sense, I feel that Grown-ish’s writers are trying too hard in certain aspects while neglecting the others. Zoey’s friends are very unique and differ from each other greatly: Aaron is the “woke” guy, Nomi is the token LGBTQ+ friend, Jazlyn and Skylar are the twin student athletes who hide their “hood” origins in order to come across as more likeable, etc. But beyond these surface level details, it strikes me that I don’t know these characters as people at all. I don’t know their college majors, their goals and motivations, or why they act the way they do.
Grown-ish’s writers have evidently put thought into being inclusive and portraying many different kinds of people with different backgrounds, but they fail to really explore them as people. Perhaps this is because they’re side characters to the main plot of Zoey’s journey, but the irony is that I don’t know Zoey very well either – I didn’t even know she was a fashion major until she got her Vogue internship. There’s the possibility that Zoey is more fleshed out in Grown-ish’s parent show, Black-ish, but having never watched it I wouldn’t know. However, Grown-ish should stand as an independent piece of media, and that fact that the writing fails to fully realize its protagonist hurts the overall quality of the show.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but personally I cannot fathom the idea of Grown-ish’s opening scene ever happening in real life. The idea that Zoey can walk into her first college class and immediately be met with a group of friends with whom she can spend the rest of her exciting and bright college life with is doubtful, to say the least. Moreover, while Grown-ish’s diverse cast is certainly something to be celebrated, the briskness with which these completely different people came together strains my suspension of disbelief. To me, this first scene is very indicative of the show’s priorities – its characters are merely a vehicle through which Grown-ish can present its ideas. The show isn’t concerned with showing these friendships establish or develop themselves in a natural manner; it just needed to immediately set the pieces in place.
Think of it as dominoes – they made the decision to not show how each individual piece was set up or how the configuration of the pieces was created. Their priority is showing you the end result as they tip the first domino and watch everything that follows. The problem with this approach is that they’re making a serialized television show, and Grown-ish’s characters feel about as inconsequential to me as domino pieces. They’re nothing but a means to an end, with the end being whatever subject the show wants to focus on in a particular episode.
In one episode, Aaron and Luca serve as the attractive guys who Zoey can mess around with as the show explores hook-up culture. And once that episode is over, Zoey and the guys are friends as usual even though she two-timed both of them. There are no lasting consequences for Zoey’s actions because the show isn’t concerned with how hook-up culture affects people and their relationships in the long term – it says its piece and then it moves on. Watching Grown-ish feels like you’re just reading an informative article.
And this is my main gripe with Grown-ish: it doesn’t fully utilize the medium it occupies. Its existence as a serialized television show is completely incidental; Zoey’s storyline is relatively shallow, and its lack of depth means that whenever the show focuses on it, it takes away time that could’ve been spent further developing the broader ideas of each episode. It doesn’t really contribute anything to the show other than maybe servicing the fans of Black-ish who wanted to see Zoey in college.
In my ideal world, Grown-ish would better integrate its themes into its characters and their conflicts, allowing the ideas and character drama to feed into one another. That way, the varying aspects of the show would enhance and elevate each other, making for a television show that is both entertaining and illuminating. But at the end of the day, Grown-ish is dedicated to its exploration of ideas rather than portraying an authentic post-secondary experience (which would probably involve a lot less partying and a lot more cups of coffee downed in a desperate attempt to finish a paper at four in the morning).
Currently, Grown-ish’s first season has yet to finish, but its network has already renewed it for a second season. Judging from its ratings and the writing of others on the Internet, the show evidently works for some people in a way that doesn’t work for me. Nevertheless, I believe that it has ample room to grow and develop, and my hope for Grown-ish is that it puts more thought into its characters and overarching storyline. Doing so would, in my opinion, strengthen Grown-ish as a show and allow its reach to extend even further.