When it premieres on July 20, season five of Freeform’s Grown-ish won’t just be introducing a batch of new characters: It’ll be trying to solve one of TV’s most vexing dilemmas.
Call it “the college problem”: If a show with younger characters runs long enough, it has to acknowledge that kids’ lives change radically when they become young adults. While it’s believable that an ensemble of older folks will stay at the same office or bar or apartment complex for years at a time, it’s harder accept that a kid will remain with their family forever or that a college student will hang around campus after completing their senior year. Keeping these characters on screen together traditionally has required all kinds of narrative shenanigans.
It’s understandable why so many series make the effort: viewers become attached to the cast members they’ve been watching from the beginning, and the removal of a major character can cause irreparable harm to a show's dynamic. Hence the many strategies that have been developed to keep twentysomething actors close to home.
In fact, Grown-ish itself was created because it no longer made sense for Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) to stay on Black-ish, the show that introduced her when she was still a teen. So just like The Cosby Show spinning off A Different World to let us follow Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) to her freshman year at Hillman College, Black-ish begat Grown-ish as Zoey enrolled at Cal U.
This worked out for several reasons. From a business perspective, the new show’s success proved that the Black-ish characters could thrive outside the mothership, and that no doubt helped Mixed-ish, about the childhood of Tracee Ellis-Ross’ character Rainbow, get off the ground. From a creative vantage point, the new series let Zoey’s life develop naturally. She still made appearances on Black-ish, because college kids do indeed come home to visit, but she didn’t get trapped in sitcom limbo.
That’s what happened to Becky and Darlene in the original run of Roseanne. Even though Becky was a straight-A student and was at one point offered tuition money by her working class family, she kept choosing her boyfriend over her education, and that kept her trapped in her hometown. (Ironically, the character was played by Sarah Chalke for part of the show's run because Lecy Goranson, who originated Becky, went to college herself.) Similarly, Darlene (Sara Gilbert) kept getting pulled back home because of her boyfriend, eventually getting pregnant and marrying him. Ultimately, neither young woman left the show’s orbit.
But as convoluted as these stories were, at least they worked in a metaphorical sense: Both Roseanne and its current iteration The Conners have a nihilistic streak about the hole where America sticks its working class. When characters as bright and promising as Becky and Darlene are stuck in their circumstances, we see the disillusioned worldview lying just beneath the jokes.
You can’t make the same argument for series like Beverly Hills 90210 or Saved By the Bell, which moved most of their major characters from the same high school to the same university. (Just like Grown-ish, both shows named their fake college Cal U.) It’s not only ludicrous, but also a little sad to consider a group of high school friends who are so codependent that they move to campus in a single hive.
In its fifth season, Grown-ish is flirting with this dubious tactic by sending Zoey’s brother Junior (Marcus Scribner) to Cal U after her. But to its credit, the series is introducing an entirely new group of freshman characters for Junior to meet, and it’s retiring most of the characters who graduated with Zoey, suggesting that Junior will have his own friend group and storylines.
Zoey, meanwhile, is headed off to New York to pursue her dreams and (conveniently) reconnect with some Grown-ish characters who have also moved to the city. It will be interesting to see how much time is spent toggling between Zoey and Junior’s worlds and how frequently they intersect.
Hopefully the show will handle this split better than Glee, which spent three long seasons concocting flimsy reasons for its characters to come back to their old high school in the years after they graduated. A Different World struggled with this, too, as core characters like Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) kept finding specious reasons to tie their lives back to Hillman.
Maybe the answer is to let Zoey gradually fade from Grown-ish as Junior’s time in college moves to the fore. Or maybe Zoey will get yet another spin-off as she starts her own family. No matter what, it’s worth watching TV’s latest effort to solve the college problem.
Grown-ish returns to Freeform for its Season 5 premiere Wednesday July 20th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Grown-ish, Beverly Hills, 90210, Black-ish, The Conners, A Different World, Glee, Roseanne, Saved by the Bell, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Lecy Goranson, Lisa Bonet, Marcus Scribner, Sara Gilbert, Sarah Chalke, Yara Shahidi