‘Grown-ish’ is trying its best to finally grow up

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

With the final episodes of its third season, which premiered Jan. 21, “Grown-ish” moves away from weirdly trying its hand at solving real world issues with idyllic, Disney Channel-like life lessons.

“Grown-ish” started off as an ambitious attempt to capture the bright-eyed enthusiasm Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) embodied as she graduated off of “Black-ish” and entered college. Initially, it was a good effort. The writers tried their best at capturing the feeling of leaving the suburban nest by having Zoey live through somewhat relatable college experiences — complete with an Adderall addiction and the occasional vomiting Republican roommate.

At its very best, the show brought to light issues BIPOC face at predominantly white institutions like the fictional Cal U. At its core, however, “Grown-ish” was an uninspired mess.

With this season, the show finally figured out that Zoey has become unbearable. The type of unbearable that would make fans create a Change.org petition titled: “Develop Grownish’s Zoey Johnson’s character!” Her role in the show has been dramatically reduced, as Zoey is now a college dropout busy styling rapper Indigo, played excellently by the Bay Area’s icy girl, Saweetie. And even with the limited screen time, Zoey has undergone more growth in just six episodes than in the previous two seasons.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that Zoey Johnson was not meant to be a main character. And that is entirely okay. The show’s other characters finally get the chance to be fleshed out, and “Grown-ish” is all the better because of it.

Once-neglected characters are given their time to shine, albeit still saddled with odd storylines that tack on tepid resolutions. In the episode “Know Yourself,” Gucci-donning engineering student by day, drug dealer by night Vivek (Jordan Buhat)has a threesome with his girlfriend and a random man, and rebuffs his friends’ protests when he still decides that he’s still straight. A heated conversation about toxic masculinity and eating bananas in public later, the episode finishes on a middling point when they buy him a “Sorry I Called You Gay” cake.

In the past, the show would start off with conversations about consent, colorism, cultural appropriation, but by the end of 22 minutes, nothing substantial was ever said, nothing was ever accomplished. The storylines they chose to explore this season are much more relevant than the dreary, random pregnancies and drone-sex of seasons past.

In one of the most powerful episodes of the show yet, Aaron (Trevor Jackson) discovers that at the same time their university was cutting down funding for the Black Student Union, it was investing money in private prisons. “I thought that was some Harvard shit,” he said after finding out.

Later, Aaron is unjustly arrested, simply for putting up informational posters, and decides to lead a “Rattail Revolution,” encouraging students to protest alongside him. The episode served as an homage to the power of college campus movements — they even included a photo of the Free Speech Movement’s protest at Sather Gate (Go Bears!) For what it feels like the first time in the years since the start of “Grown-ish,” the writers and actors portray a realistic issue on campuses. The continued pattern of racial violence and policing is met with the same frustration and anger we could see on real college campuses.

Jazz (Chloe Bailey) and Sky (Halle Bailey) are easily the strongest performers of the season. Halle Bailey has the most refined comedic timing of the entire cast and sounds even more calculated when she presses people’s buttons with her angelic, soft-spoken voice. The show’s best one-liners are completely hers: After Jesus’ crucifixion, “We got salvation and Cadbury eggs,” according to Sky. Chloe Bailey handles Jazz’s struggle to balance her running career and relationship troubles with a heartbreaking and powerful turn.

“Grown-ish” has stopped pressuring itself to do too much at once. There’s still the snappy dialogue and residual bad takes, but it gives some semblance of a plot a try. While the writers are still not completely done solving the show’s Cheesecake Factory menu-long list of problems, they’re finally letting the show go through its own coming-of-age moment.

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].