Four seasons in, the ABC sitcom Black-ish has its appeal down to a science. Created by Girls Trip cowriter Kenya Barris and comedian Larry Wilmore, the Norman Lear–inspired family series has a reliable engine that’s carried it through strong ratings, eight Emmy nominations, and a surprise Golden Globe for star Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Johnson family matriarch Rainbow. The show takes instructional points about the lived realities of race in America, filters them through an absurdly compelling ensemble that runs the age spectrum from breakout tween Marsai Martin to elder stateswoman Jenifer Lewis, and grounds it all in a specific set of quirks and anxieties.
Black-ish itself can and should continue in this mold indefinitely; I’m quite enjoying the current plotline about new baby Devante, which produced a knockout episode about postpartum depression. And this week, the Black-ish Expanded Universe gets its very first entry, and with it, Barris and Wilmore make their first attempt at exporting their hit show’s carefully honed house style. Grown-ish, a college-set spinoff airing on Freeform, is a promising attempt to adapt the Black-ish sensibility while preserving what made it work so well in the first place.
Grown-ish centers on Zoey (Yara Shahidi), the eldest child of the Johnson clan and a newly matriculated freshman at the fictional Cal U. In the context of Black-ish, Zoey has always played the lovingly exasperated favorite child to her father, Andre, Anthony Anderson’s man-baby ad man. As if to ease the audience into Zoey’s perspective from Dre’s, the opening scene of Grown-ish shows her consoling her dad over the phone as he has a separation-anxiety-induced meltdown in his walk-in closet. Dre isn’t the only explicit link between Grown-ish and its mothership, either: Dre’s eccentric coworker Charlie (Deon Cole) inexplicably moonlights as a professor presiding over the late-night class where Zoey forges her tight-knit friend group. It’s well established that Cal U is just a short drive from the Johnsons’ Sherman Oaks home base, laying the groundwork for future cameos and crossover episodes. I have a hunch Zoey’s nerdy little brother Junior will embarrass her at a party before the season’s over.
For all its explicit links back to the Johnson saga, Grown-ish is tasked with building an ensemble and mood all its own. In the most literal sense, that means building a brand-new cast of characters from Zoey’s classmates, a Breakfast Club–like assemblage of misfits who each ended up in Cal U’s least desirable class for their own reasons. Beyoncé-blessed sisters Chloe x Halle, who also contributed the show’s theme song, boost Grown-ish’s teen cred as twin track stars Jazz and Sky; Trevor Jackson (as overzealous activist Aaron) and Luka Sabbat (as pothead Jaden Smith–type Luca) provide the requisite eye candy as the other two points in Zoey’s obligatory love triangle. Rounding out the crew are abrasive, sexually adventurous Nomi (Emily Arlook), STEM-student-by-day-drug-dealer-by-night Vivek (Jordan Buhat), and Zoey’s socially conservative Cuban roommate, Analisa (Francia Raisa). Venturing outside the Johnson family unit means mirroring the real-life college experience of forging connections with people hailing from outside one’s accustomed comfort zone—in Zoey’s case, an affluent African American family in an equally affluent, but very white, enclave like the San Fernando Valley.
Grown-ish maintains its predecessor’s sharp eye for how race operates in everyday life: Jazz and Sky’s backstory as Williams-like sisters from South L.A. touches heavily on the concept of code-switching, and Jackson’s Aaron is a pitch-perfect spoof of the self-serious social justice type. But Grown-ish also goes where Black-ish can’t, adding a focus on issues specifically relevant to the late teens and early 20-somethings who make up its target demographic. Study drugs get their own Very Special Episode, in which Zoey struggles with whether to use Adderall to finish her paper on Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So does hookup culture when Zoey is forced to apply Talmudic levels of interpretive skill to the three most terrifying letters in the English language: “U up?”
Sometimes, this shift in substance comes with an accompanying shift in style. The soundtrack is studiously, self-consciously contemporary, and every episode is named after a popular rap album or song, albeit with a heavy Old Millennial bent (the pilot is called “Late Registration”; the texting episode “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”). An occasional swear word works its way into the dialogue. And of course, Black-ish would never show someone puking their guts out at a frat party.
Mostly, however, Grown-ish retains the distinctive, candid voice that makes Black-ish such a valuable addition to the modern sitcom roster. Black-ish may be firmly PG, but Barris and Wilmore (who hosts Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air on the Ringer Podcast Network) infused it with a sneakily razor-sharp ethos. This is the same show that frankly addressed the role of rape in the history of biracial Americans and frequently makes casual jokes about Dre not loving his eldest son. Consequently, Black-ish doesn’t need to make nearly as big a leap to subplots about sex and drugs as other kid-friendly shows might, especially since Grown-ish takes on those subjects with the same topic-of-the-week lens that Black-ish is so fond of.
In just the handful of episodes provided to critics in advance, Grown-ish already feels at home both in the Barris brand and alongside other froth-woke Freeform highlights like The Bold Type and The Fosters. There are still some kinks to work out and relationships to develop before they fully make sense, particularly romantic ones—at one point, Zoey abandons Aaron for Luka, before some viewers (like me) have even realized Luka was supposed to be a love interest. But Grown-ish still has the look, mood, and confidence of a truly modern college series, an update of erstwhile ABC Family series Greek and Cosby Show spinoff A Different World alike. The dorm rooms are as unrealistically oversize and well-appointed as ever, but the characters and conflicts feel totally of the moment. College students have never been more scrutinized thanks to social media and unfairly maligned as safe space–clamoring children, thanks to endless op-eds. Grown-ish argues the kids are going to be just fine as shrewdly and persuasively as its creators always have.