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Well, Rainbow and Dre Johnson's oldest child, Zoey (Yara Shahidi), is finally off at college and on her own in Grown-ish. While it's good that the comedy is trying to blaze its own trail (mostly) without the support of other familiar characters from ABC's popular family comedy Black-ish, it's likely that this low-energy continuation of Zoey's story will have trouble connecting with audiences as quickly as its parent show did.
Grown-ish follows Zoey as she adjusts to life at Southern California University and all the newfound responsibilities of being away from her parents' watchful eyes. The ever-popular Johnson child quickly befriends her roommate, Analisa (Francia Raisa), a devoted Republican with a big political secret, and forms a friendly, diverse crew with a group of students who are also enrolled in the comically late-night class taught by Dre's co-worker Charlie (Deon Cole). There, Zoey meets the experienced, bisexual, Jewish American Princess Nomi (Emily Arlook), free spirited and artistic stoner Luca (Luka Sabbat), ambitious to a fault Vivek (Jordan Buhat), dreamy activist Aaron (Trevor Jackson), and track star twins Jazz and Sky (Chloe and Halle Bailey). Meanwhile, Zoey gets occasional, solid life advice from the university's goofy Dean of Students, Dean Parker (Chris Parnell).
The best part about Grown-ish, which comes from creators Kenya Barris (Black-ish, Girls Trip) and Larry Wilmore (The Bernie Mac Show, Insecure) and is produced, in part, by Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, is that the series isn't afraid to take its leading lady down a peg or two. Anyone who watches Black-ish knows that Zoey is the most popular, put-together, secure and fashionable of the Johnson siblings, but Grown-ish shows her how insulated she's been in her much smaller high school world and that everything will not always come so easy to her. In the first three episodes of Season 1, Zoey makes some rookie mistakes while trying to navigate life on her own and even begins to head down a path that might not be so easy for the formerly sure-footed social navigator to come back from without help.
While Zoey will clearly have a lot of out-of-the-classroom learning to do during the course of Grown-ish, part of the problem with the early episodes is that the comedy is seriously lacking in the spark that makes Black-ish such a joy to watch. Even understanding, as I do, that the personalities of the characters can take time to gel, and that the chemistry of those characters (and the actors who play them) sometimes needs a bit to really click, the first few episodes are unfortunately boring, with many jokes that fall flat, and so low on energy that it was hard to stay focused on what was happening on screen. The action picks up a bit for the first half of Episode 3, but then lulls again by the end, so it's possible the series will find its flow before the end of the first half of the season. But, in a television landscape that's more crowded than ever, the big question is whether or not people will stick around to see that happen.
Those behind the scenes at Grown-ish have done a solid job of making sure Zoey is surrounded by interesting, well-played characters who can challenge her, teach her or even get her into trouble, but the dynamic between those characters isn't as strong as what we started with on Black-ish. Some of that might just be because it's easier, from a storytelling standpoint, to create interplay between members of a family, but, even though she finds her friends almost immediately and we're shown repeatedly that they are the people Zoey will be hanging with, they didn't quite feel like a real friend group. With the exception of two of her guy friends, they all bond and become inseparable so quickly that it doesn't quite seem realistic for a show that's clearly going to deal with some realities of heading off to college. I actually think the start of the show would have been better had Zoey not connected with so many other students right away to really drive home how little she understands about making life work when you sort of have to start from scratch.
As it stands right now, Grown-ish has some work to do in order to get the energy level up and make the characters feel more lived in and bonded with each other, but the show is starting with good bones that should make that process easier than other shows which start out with much less. You can catch Grown-ish on Freeform when it debuts its one hour series premiere on January 3 at 8 p.m. EST.