'Grown-ish': Kenya Barris and Yara Shahidi school us on Freeform's 'Black-ish' spinoff

Victoria Leigh Miller
Yara Shahidi as Zoey Johnson in Grown-ish. (Photo: Freeform/Andrew Eccles)

Zoey Johnson has graduated to her own series. Yara Shahidi’s teen Black-ish character headlines Grown-ish, a Freeform comedy that follows the stylish and socially prolific daughter of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) as she starts her freshman year of college at the University of Southern California. And like A Different World’s Denise Huxtable discovered 30 (!) years ago, Zoey finds that flying the family sitcom coop comes with some challenges — and maybe some crossover cameos.

We caught up with Shahidi and Grown-ish creator Kenya Barris to get the ABCs on the Black-ish spinoff, which kicks off Jan. 3 with back-to-back episodes. “You really get a taste of what this show is about even within the first two episodes,” Shahidi says of the premiere. “You get a beautiful introduction of the people that revolve in Zoey’s circle in the first episode and you kind of understand how they all become friends. And then the second episode we kind of dive straight into the moment Zoey starts being a young adult, the decisions she’s making. And you get a taste for how different it is from Black-ish — it’s a totally different show.”

The Black-ish episode “Liberal Arts” served as a backdoor pilot for Grown-ish, so viewers will recognize some of the faces Zoey encounters as she settles into college life. In addition to Shahidi, the supersize Grown-ish cast includes Trevor Jackson, Jordan Buhat, Emily Arlook, Francia Raisa, Chris Parnell, singers Chloe and Halle Bailey, and Deon Cole, who reprises his role as Charlie Telphy, the Johnsons’ family friend regularly seen on Black-ish. The Johnson ’rents will also make guest appearances as Zoey navigates new turf — and a reality check.

Chris Parnell as Dean Parker, Jordan Buhat as Vivek, Emily Arlook as Nomi Segal, Shahidi, Trevor Jackson as Aaron, Fancia Raisa as Ana Torres, and Deon Cole as Charlie Telphy (Photo: Freeform/Andrew Eccles)

“Zoey has been protected from the rest of the world,” Shahidi says of her character. “Socioeconomically, her family has always been very politically active. Being a girl that’s upper middle class in Sherman Oaks, she has acquired a certain lifestyle. So going into a college environment when you don’t have that monetary protection around you or that familial protection around you, you kind of see Zoey making these adult decisions, or at least acting as though she is grown and realizing very quickly that she’s not.”

Black-ish is known for taking on tough topics and current events, but Shahidi says for Grown-ish it will be more about “addressing college culture” when it comes to real-world issues.

“Our goal was to stay relevant, and instead of really pulling things out of the headlines it was really trying to find those patterns of what does everyone endure in their college experience and how do we address that?” the actress says.

Of course, comparisons to the 1980s sitcom A Different World are bound to occur. Shahidi credits The Cosby Show spinoff for paving the way, but reiterates that it really is a different world for Grown-ish.

 A Different World is what gave us space to even make a show like this,” she says. “Just what it did for the entertainment landscape, normalizing having a storyline driven by people of color, and it is a huge factor. … And at the same time, Grown-ish is actually a different show. Because A Different World did what it needed to do, we’re trying to take those next steps and rather than repeat, come up with something new.”

One of the reasons the show will look and feel so different is the move to Freeform, which allows for more serialized storytelling.

“It’s a binge-able show,” executive producer Kenya Barris says. “It’s really serialized. The show on ABC, it would have been a completely different show. We wouldn’t have been able to do the serialized nature, which I think this show really needed. We wouldn’t have been able to say most of the things that we say. And it wouldn’t have spoken as directly to the audience that we wanted to speak to as the audience for Freeform does. Honestly, it’s such a blessing for us.”

Because Zoey has been a bit sheltered in that cushy Sherman Oaks existence, she’ll face some challenges in the real world. Barris describes her journey as “big fish in little pond going to little fish in big pond.”

“Like a lot of high school seniors, she felt like she had it mastered, figured out,” the showrunner says. “Now this is a totally new world. And whenever you put someone who’s used to having everything go their way into a situation where they don’t, I think it’s a great setting for a lot of great stories.”

Shahidi and Luka Sabbat (Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Freeform)

Barris wanted to keep Zoey close to home as she starts college, which allows him to keep the character on Black-ish too.

“It was really important to us for her to actually go to school in town because we want her to be able to stop into the home,” he says. “And we will interchange people throughout the show as we feel is needed as we organically tell the stories we want to tell.”

Barris also thinks the stories, even the hot-button ones, will be received “in a different way” than they are on Black-ish.

Black-ish is a family show, that literally in the tradition of Norman Lear kind of looks to reflect family problems and obstacles and the conversations you have to have through the mirror of television, through the lens of the family,” he says. “Whereas Grown-ish is more of an homage to the journey of becoming an adult.”

While Barris says the Zoey character was “a natural” for the spinoff series because it was time for her to go to college, he also noted the huge amount of personal growth he has seen in Shahidi since he first met her.

“She was 11 or 12 when we met, and to see her grow up into the young woman she has become, I thought she was a perfect partner to go on this journey with,” he says. “Because she really did represent a lot of what this generation was about. I thought, ‘This is what kids should be aspiring to be.'”

And while he admits it’s a “big statement,” Barris has a major prediction for the rest of the Grown-ish cast too: “I think this might be one of the best casts on television,” he says. “In a much different way than the amazing cast we put together for Black-ish was also one of the best casts, this is a group of people who are so different and so unique and came from such different places but gel together to form what really is an Avengers of teenage angst. I think people are going to be blown away by this cast. I feel like the people in this cast are going to end up being the next generation of superstars.”

Grown-ish premieres Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. with back-to-back episodes on Freeform.

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