For better or worse, A Different World, the Cosby Show spinoff that began airing in 1987, following Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) to Hillman College, has provided the blueprint for sitcom depictions of black middle-class college existence.
That blueprint now extends to grown-ish, the offshoot of black-ish starring Yara Shahidi as college freshman Zoey Johnson, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Freeform. It’s one in which an attractive, personable, well-behaved girl learns the basics of adulthood, such as the perils of taking classes that start at midnight and the importance of sticking by your friends, even when the cost may be broader social suicide.
Girls modeled on Denise are smart, but their intellect isn’t necessarily reflected in their grades. They’re sheltered, and they move through college under ideal, manageable circumstances. And they’re presented as typical, pleasant girls who should be completely relatable for white America.
There are some key differences between Zoey and Denise. Zoey is a student at the fictional, predominantly white Southern California University. Setting A Different World at a historically black college or university (HBCU) allowed the show to elide a backdrop of subterranean racism that comes as part of the package of being a person of color attending a predominantly white institution (PWI). And grown-ish exists in an America 30 years older (though arguably not much wiser) than the idyllic cocoon of Hillman, one squarely in the age of the internet and social media. What does it mean to be transitioning into adulthood in a country that’s using these new tools to reveal all its identity-based hostilities?
It’s worth asking how grown-ish, created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore, the two men behind black-ish, will address that question, given that black-ish has made a place for itself by addressing race and identity head-on. The show’s hallmark is Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) narrating his life as an upper-middle-class family man in Southern California. Andre navigates the audience through conversations about race as he and his wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), grapple with what it means to be black, well-off and existing in a world where they’re largely surrounded by white people. One answer? Their high-school-age son Junior (Marcus Scribner) quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Zoey’s interactions with sticky topics such as systemic racism have been less overt. In one episode of black-ish that addressed police shootings of unarmed black people and the civil unrest that followed, Zoey had to assure Rainbow that just because she wasn’t saying much didn’t mean she wasn’t taking it all in. She just processes things differently.
With grown-ish, Zoey joins a cross-network sorority of sitcom upper-middle-class black co-eds: Whitley Gilbert (A Different World), Denise Huxtable (A Different World), Samantha White (Dear White People), Moesha (Moesha), and even Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell (Sister, Sister). All these shows gave us a safe environment for black people dwelling in the world of higher education — perhaps so safe that they ignored the harsher realities, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college. No one had to worry that Denise, Moesha, Tia or Tamera might drop out because their parents couldn’t afford tuition, or that their optimism might be tainted by sexual assault.
Which prompts another question facing this new show: Is it possible for grown-ish to exist without becoming too Denise-ish?
A Different World began as a show primarily about the sweet-natured, poofy-haired bohemian of the Huxtable clan, but she quickly was upstaged by the tart-mouthed Whitley (Jasmine Guy). Once Debbie Allen, a Howard alumnus, stepped in after a lackluster first season to make Hillman actually feel like an HBCU, A Different World became far more interesting. That difference was reflected in just about every aspect of A Different World, including the second season title sequence, which featured vignettes of the multiple facets of HBCU life, from ROTC to black sororities and fraternities to marching band to sports. Season two introduced the naive Freddie (Cree Summer) and the pragmatic, focused Kim (Charnele Brown) and dispatched Denise and Marisa Tomei’s character, Maggie. Whitley, who was always the most magnetic character, became more of a centerpiece.
But one thing remained the same: the largely chaste atmosphere. A Different World avoided sex and gender politics in a way that’s not especially realistic now. And it made a conscious decision to do so, which is part of the reason that Bonet didn’t return after its first season. She was basically banished to A Different World from The Cosby Show because of rifts with creator Bill Cosby. Bonet and Cosby disagreed about her decision to do the film Angel Heart, in which Bonet appeared nude and covered in blood. She appeared topless in an April 1987 issue of Interview magazine. Bonet married Lenny Kravitz in 1987 and gave birth to their daughter, Zoë, in 1988. In her real life, Bonet was pushing back against Cosby’s prescribed vision of respectable, good-girl wholesomeness.
I hope grown-ish will offer a corrective to this and delve headlong into all the things that come with being a female college student in 2018. It should include not just the usual coming-of-age topics, such as learning to do laundry, but also an awareness of campus sexual assault, racism and the Trump administration. Such awareness means dealing with mental illness, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, discovering and questioning your sexuality, having fair-to-middling to just plain bad sex as you awkwardly figure what you’re into, grappling with internet porn and the way it warps boys’ expectations surrounding sex, and finding out exactly what it means to chart your independence before you finally cut the tether to the mothership and get your own cellphone plan.
Both Barris and Wilmore have established themselves as skilled writers in crafting black male characters who break the fourth wall to tell us about their lives, from Andre Johnson to Bernie Mac. I don’t doubt that this is possible with grown-ish — one of my favorite episodes of The Nightly Show included a boisterous discussion of menstruation. And Wilmore was instrumental in the creation of Insecure, which is about as genuine a depiction of young, black, middle-class adulthood as one could ask for. Barris’ writing has only gotten more ambitious on black-ish. Its fourth season saw Rainbow suffer through postpartum depression before seeking professional help, without any stigma for doing so. Still, the audience experienced Rainbow’s depression through Andre’s perspective. He narrated her trauma, because he narrates every episode of the show.
Grown-ish is built on the same model of storytelling via voiceover narration, but the voice we hear is Zoey’s, not her father’s. For the show to succeed, especially with Freeform’s young, female audience, Zoey has to sound and feel like an 18-year-old girl. It needs to be timely like black-ish, but with less of black-ish’s didacticism and ornery middle-aged-black-man speechifying.
Thanks to the bounty of Peak TV, there are now multiple shows centered on black college life: The Quad on BET answers the question “What if Scandal took place at an HBCU?”; Netflix’s Dear White People captures the slow-boiling rage (and absurdity) of becoming woke at a PWI; and now grown-ish.
All of these shows are serving two audiences. If you’re an adult, the appeal is in watching stories about people who are unformed, who are making decisions about which way their lives are going to go, and then reflecting on the same period in your own life. If you’re in high school or younger, they provide a way to imagine how your future life might play out, similar to the way tweens of an earlier era used to leaf through YM or Seventeen or even the dELiA’s catalog. These were the media that gave you an idea of what it was like to be, well, grown-ish. Nowadays, it’s Teen Vogue.
Shahidi is basically the Teen Vogue It Girl as conceived by its editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth. She’s energetic, engaged with the world around her and unabashedly woke. She wears her natural curls and embraces her multiethnic background. She feels like a real person, not a celebrity cipher. Capitalizing on the relationship, black-ish featured Welteroth in a storyline in which Zoey did an internship at the magazine.
Shahidi is a charming, sparkly joy to watch, and grown-ish feels like a reset button for Zoey. As the senior sibling of black-ish, Zoey radiated confidence, coolness and, when necessary, withering retorts. She inherited her father’s up-to-the-minute fashion sense, which she set off with poppin’ lip gloss and an array of funky-fresh hairstyles. College Zoey is just as stylish, but she’s unsure of herself and her surroundings. She gets into scrapes such as beginning (and then quickly ending) an Adderall habit. She parties too much and falls behind on her class assignments. She falls into a humiliating texting shame spiral with an oh-so-dreamy rattail-sporting crush played by Trevor Jackson.
Zoey represents the new reality for younger millennials and Generation Z. It’s one where adolescence ends somewhere around 26, when you finally have to get your own health insurance.
Grown-ish isn’t dependent upon black-ish, which airs on ABC, as a lead-in. Freeform, the channel formerly known as ABC Family, has fashioned itself into a purveyor of shows tailor-made for Teen Vogue’s readership. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and The Bold Type are notable for their refusal to condescend to the young women who make up large portions of their viewership. Grown-ish isn’t gunning so much for black-ish viewers as it is other Freeform ones, and it’s worth considering how that will affect its focus.
Shahidi has everything she needs to carry a show that could see Zoey inheriting her father’s penchant for addressing challenging social issues with aplomb. What ultimately doomed the first season of A Different World was that it was too polite. On television, there’s still an instinct to be protective of the image of black middle-class girls, one that stems from Denise and the worries of her creator. The result is a string of mostly perfect young women who rarely get the chance to screw up in the way that all girls screw up, to be just as irreverent, mistake-prone and horny as, say, the teens of Gossip Girl.
Here’s hoping that with grown-ish, Zoey gets to be a little bit of everything, a trait that would make her blessedly real, and completely appropriate for our modern age.