Zoey Johnson’s first experiment with Adderall doesn’t turn out as planned. Neither, for that matter, does her second: Finishing her paper on Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a step up from splurging on shoes she doesn’t need, but it still leaves her drained, uncertain, hazily dissatisfied. Having not so long ago drafted my own senior thesis while “Smurfing out” on the back porch of a Los Angeles flop, this sounds about right, and Zoey, played by the endearing Yara Shahidi, resolves to change. “From now on, I’m going to do me,” she says to her roommate, Ana (Francia Raisa), near the end of the second episode, as grown-ish sets up a sitcom resolution—lessons learned, growth achieved, the circle closed until next week’s installment. Until the credits roll, that is, and Zoey goes back on her word. “U up? Wanna hang?” her sometime beau, Aaron (Trevor Jackson), texts her later that night, and the final sight of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is Zoey reaching once more for the Adderall.
For much of its first season—the sixth of 13 episodes airs tonight—the black-ish spinoff, set at the fictional Cal U, has seemed to me merely “promising,” that term of praise diminishing in strength as the series continued to search for its footing. After all, Zoey’s since fallen in and out (and in again) with Aaron, Luca (Luka Sabbat), and campus basketball star Cash Mooney (Da’Vinchi), an arc that’s hazily dissatisfying in its own right. Her studies, with the exception of that cobbled together paper (“The Ruth. The Ruth. The Ruth.”) and a midnight digital marketing strategies class taught by her father’s eccentric colleague, Charlie (Deon Cole, sorely misused), are an afterthought; only its brief mention in tonight’s episode, “Cashin’ Out,” reminded me that she’s majoring in fashion. In re-watching grown-ish to research a column on its unmet promise, though, I came to understand that its own growing pains are an ideal reflection of its protagonist’s, that the sudden swerve at the conclusion of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is not a narrative slip but a statement of purpose. Grown-ish is still not all it could be, and yet it’s also, undoubtedly, an inventive, astute effort to transport the sitcom to college. The halting change that comes with leaving the nest is right there in its bones.
The series’ structure, for one, has more in common with cable comedies (see Younger) than it does black-ish, which, for all its resistance to pat answers, begins and ends with Dre Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) narration, more or less neatly packaging the family’s funny travails in sociohistorical context. (For the record: I fucking adore black-ish.) Zoey addresses the viewer, too, but in puckish asides and fleeting flashbacks that suggest a more subjective mode—which grown-ish then replicates with its ambivalent endings, always holding out the simple solution and then spinning away from it. After trying to juggle Aaron and Luca goes about as poorly as her first “Addy spiral,” for example, Zoey once again decides to focus on Zoey, only to run into Cash on the quad and find herself immediately charmed by him. In subsequent episodes, she blanches at, then celebrates, being described as “the cup bitch,” depending the tenor of her relationship with Cash; later, she rages at his Instagram comment about her virginity, softens when she discovers he’s dealing with family troubles, rages again when he brings up his “brand,” confesses that she appreciated his instinct to defend her, and ends up—well, frankly, it’s hard to know. The girl dashes from decision to decision, mistake to mistake, at a speed that only college freshmen, the cheetahs of questionable judgment, could possibly muster.
At first, this is disorienting, even frustrating, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Zoey’s problems are primarily romantic in nature. (Her feud with Ana, after abandoning her drunk at a party, held at least as much potential as any love interest, but the series shuffled this subplot off in short order.) While it remains slightly irksome that such a confident and intelligent young woman—look at her freaking wardrobe!—should be boy crazy to the point of it dominating each week’s narrative, though, it’s both realistic for her age group and—here’s the important part—more deftly handled than it appears at first glance. Grown-ish’s unconventional approach to the episode reshapes the sitcom, still breezier and more family friendly than, say, Greek or Undeclared, to match Zoey’s steep learning curve, and that of its target audience. The series admirably allows its heroine the space to change her mind, then change it back, then forget she’d changed it, then be convinced otherwise, in a stumbling, never-ending cycle of uncertainty that so closely codes with my own experience of freshman year it initially threw me off. Once I recognized that Zoey’s growing pains, emphasis on “pain,” were woven into grown-ish’s fabric like this, I started to see its imperfections as a feature, not a bug.
That’s not to say there’s no room for grown-ish to smooth the way forward, to turn “promising” into “flourishing,” as reliable as its parent program. One of the reasons Zoey’s romantic entanglements are of such outsized importance, for instance, is because the series is still using up precious minutes on Charlie’s class—a novel if clumsy way to introduce the main cast, one with diminishing returns—and, similarly, on Chris Parnell’s goofy Dean Parker, swooping in and out with suspect wisdom as if he’d come straight from the SNL soundstage. (More effective in terms of adult guidance is tonight’s guest appearance by Tracee Ellis Ross as Zoey’s mom, Rainbow: Because it’s so much more of a piece with the series’ tone, her own wisdom lands much, much harder.) Same goes for the B plots, which range from the auspicious—Zoey’s friend Nomi (Emily Arlook) enjoys a terrific if all-too-brief arc involving her and her new boyfriend’s bisexuality—to the anodyne—Zoey’s friend Vivek (Jordan Buhat) throws himself a sad birthday party in a too-tight shirt, or whatever.
I suppose what I’m working through here is a broader question: At what point in a series’ first season, in a sitcom’s, in a spinoff’s, does “promising” become a subtle insult, more indicative of misspent energies than potential ones? When is it appropriate to hold a new program accountable for its actions, and when—since debut series are often labeled “freshmen,” too—is a softer touch the more fruitful route? If I’ve changed my own mind about grown-ish nearly as many times as Zoey has about Cash, perhaps that’s a reflection of its foremost strength, and not its greatest weakness, which is its willingness to ask us to identify with a protagonist who neither solves her problems in a single episode nor exactly draws them out over the course of a season. Rather, as it happens, Zoey’s as much a hybrid as the series she helms, switching back and forth between adolescence and adulthood in the same manner as a traditional sitcom on a college campus. If I remain hesitant to embrace grown-ish completely—if I continue to hope that we’ll see its keen sense of narrative structure applied to Zoey’s platonic relationships, the supporting cast, life on campus beyond “U up?”—I’m nonetheless convinced that the promise of its imperfections is not a false one. As Zoey says anxiously at one point in tonight’s episode, “It suddenly seemed like my life was on adult fast-forward,” but grown-ish has proven itself precociously capable of pressing pause, too.
Grown-ish airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Freeform.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.