Grown-ish. Freeform. Wednesday, January 3, 8 p.m.
After nearly two decades of journeyman work on mostly forgettable TV shows—literally; does anyone remember I Hate My Teenage Daughter, canceled after two episodes in 2012?—Kenya Barris suddenly stood the industry on its head in 2014 with Black-ish, a sitcom about an upscale black family in which race is not ignored but actually acquires the status of a character as the family struggles with the question of whether being bougie is compatible with being black.
Since then, everybody has been waiting to see if Barris had another big idea. And with the debut of the spinoff Grown-ish, we have the answer: Yes—to steal The Breakfast Club, lock, stock, and teen-angst barrel.
In 1985, director John Hughes' The Breakfast Club was the latest of an emerging genre of what might be termed intra-generational rap films, in which the members of various age cohorts whined to one another that life was disappointing them. The Big Chill had the slouching-toward-middle-age Baby Boomers and their first intimations of mortality; St. Elmo's Fire, the front edge of the Gen Xers and their first intimations of working for a living.
The Breakfast Club was for teenagers. It featured five archetypal kids—a pampered princess, a jock, a nerd, a rebel, and an outcast—marooned together in a Saturday-morning detention, little by little realizing that they're all concealing secrets and vulnerabilities under their labels. "We're all pretty bizarre," observes one. "Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."
In Grown-ish, the high school kids have turned into first- and second-year college students, including Zoey, the eldest daughter in Black-ish (played by Yara Shahidi). The detention hall is now a class that runs from midnight to 2 a.m., taught by a mostly absentee adjunct professor with an erotic fixation on drones and attended almost exclusively by whores and methheads. And the kids' secrets reflect that three decades have passed; overbearing dads have been replaced by drug-dealing and manipulative moms by closeted bisexuality.
Other than that, Grown-ish is a cell-by-cell clone of The Breakfast Club and its celebration of sophomoric melodrama, where cynical wisecracks inevitably give way to mock profundities, shouting matches to hyperemotive tears, and clichés to stereotypes. (Or maybe that one is the other way around.) The wholesale piracy is so blatant that Grown-ish even tries to make a joke or two about it. But the admission that you're stealing somebody else's work doesn't make it any less larcenous.
Making a doppelganger of an endearing if adolescent movie, however pathetic from a creative standpoint, might at least make the cash registers jingle-jangle satisfactorily, especially when it airs on ABC's Freeform, a cable net pitched to high-school and college-aged audiences who are about as likely to have watched a 1985 film as they are to have read Plutarch in the original Greek.
But a kleptomaniacal heart isn't the only or even the main problem with Grown-ish. Unlike its progenitor Black-ish, which sparkles with anarchic wit, Grown-ish feels forced, populated by stock characters reading lines delivered on a sweatshop assembly line.
A more talented cast would have stabbed itself in the collective eye before speaking aloud sentences like, "The one thing I didn't know about college—that I'd never admit to my dad or anybody else—was that in all actuality, I would soon discover that I didn't know anything." Instead, these actors embrace another part of the script: "The more we cried, the more we realized why we stumbled into this crazy class." Yeah, the paycheck.