What “grown-ish” does have from the get-go is a sense of itself and a lot to say. Over the years, “black-ish” used family comedy to speak to the eras of Obama, Black Lives Matter and ultimately Trump. Now “grown-ish” comes along as colleges have become cultural-politics battlefields.
The most obvious comparison for “grown-ish” is “A Different World,” the “Cosby Show” spinoff for Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet). But it differs in ways that reflect the differences between the parent shows.
“A Different World” took place at Hillman College, a fictional historically-black school, reflecting the “Cosby Show” focus on centering American black culture — art, jazz, history.
“black-ish” — acerbic where “Cosby” was earnest — is focused on black identity in relation to a larger, multiracial, multivalent culture. So “grown-ish” lands Zoey at “California University,” a liberal arts school where her classmates include Analisa (Francia Raisa), a conservative Cuban American, and Vivek (Jordan Buhat) the son of Indian immigrants, whose impatience to get rich drives him to push pills.
The story lines are about college hot topics like Adderall use and hookup culture, but difference is never far from mind, both between and within groups. In the third episode, Zoey sarcastically apologizes for keeping two classmates — twin-sister track stars from inner-city Los Angeles — from watching “Basketball Wives,” the VH1 reality series about NBA spouses. “We were watching ‘Big Bang Theory,’ you racist,” one responds.
So far, the writing is the star of “grown-ish,” overseen by the “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris: the one-liners are funnier than the characters. An exception is Charlie (Deon Cole), Andre’s eccentric co-worker, who’s been ported over to teach a midnight business class. Mr. Cole is a delight as usual, but also a reminder that the show hasn’t entirely cut the cord.
The most interesting parts of “grown-ish” suggest there’s a distinct show here. It’s good-hearted, but with a darker edge, partly owing to the looser language restrictions on cable. (A lot of freshmen curse more freely away from their folks.)
By the second episode, Zoey voices what might be a productive theme: “Ever since I got here, I just haven’t been myself.” She’s not really as assured as she was in high school, and she’s made choices that cause her to question her integrity.
The idea that Zoey is starting to learn who she is, and that she won’t always like what she learns, is one that “grown-ish” can build a series out of. It just needs a semester or two away from home.