In college, you often have your confidence upended in a whole new environment — even if you were previously a high school queen bee. TV has tackled this before (multiple teen dramas went to university and took a dip in quality) but rarely is this overwhelming feeling depicted so accurately as in Freeform’s grown-ish, a spinoff of ABC’s black-ish. Also created by Kenya Barris, who works on both comedies, grown-ish follows eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) as she starts her freshman year at a fictional California university.
Influenced by A Different World (Barris credits that show with helping him decide to go to college), grown-ish is a diverse, funny, and realistic look at college: uncomfortable roommates, experimenting, even debating what “hookup” actually means. After the back-to-back premiere episodes, we caught up with Kenya Barris about casting a Breakfast Club for a new generation, the tonal differences between the two shows, and Lady Bird.
Did you immediately know you wanted grown-ish to be about Zoey, or did you toy around with other ideas?
We knew we wanted it to be about Yara’s character, Zoey — just the natural progression that she was going to school. It would be a complete lie if I didn’t say how much of an effect A Different World had on me [and] really affected how I approached this idea. I think A Different World had a lot to do with me going to college — I think it had a lot to do with a lot of people going to college. Additionally, I thought just watching Yara as an actress — and as a human being — grow and seeing my own daughter, now at freshman year, start her journey, I thought it was really something interesting to talk about.
College can be a very specific experience but I was struck by how universal and relatable the episodes felt. What’s the brainstorming process like for storylines?
We have a lot of young writers. For me, I came in with a lot of stories that I wanted to talk about. I think the biggest thing for us, that was really helpful, was that we really knew we wanted to do something that felt real. We wanted to do something that felt like it was based around the actual experience for kids who are in that generation right now, going through something in a time where they probably have more on their plates than any generation in the last few decades.
How much of your own experiences did you put in?
My own, a lot. Honestly, it was a lot of what I remembered in terms of the instability that I felt being in that place. That’s exactly one thing that all the writers, no matter what age, all understood and agree with. The same time, I took a lot from my daughter, from Yara, from Chloe and Halle [Bailey], from Trevor [Jackson], from Luka [Sabbat]. I took a lot from my whole cast about a little bit of where they’re at, and it was a big thinktank of ideas from all the writers. We tried to create a world that’s organic and real.
Did you have everyone sketched out or did you frame the characters around the actors?
A little bit of both. I knew I wanted an Indian kid and I knew I did not want him to be [stereotypical]. I knew I wanted someone Latina or Latino. I talked to Eva Longoria who campaigned for Hillary [Clinton] and she was surprised at how many people of that descent were going out in favor of Trump. I didn’t understand. We got into a real big talk and she explained to me, particularly, in Florida with Cubans, how they sort of have an aversion to their government. I found that so interesting. We don’t often see that so I knew I wanted that to be part of it.
Chloe and Halle, we met on a general and I fell in love with them. I started getting into their music, knowing their parents. Their vibe felt like it wasn’t a vibe that I really saw coming from a lot of what young black women were and I wanted to include that in the mix.
Luka, I actually bumped into in an elevator at the Soho House, and we complimented each other’s pants. I saw how people were responding to this kid. He was this guy who has this energy to him. I was like, I have to know who he is. I did some research and I reached out to him. I knew he had never acted before and just was like, “I want you to be you.” That’s kind of who he is in the show: a version of who he is.
Trevor just is a star from the moment I met him. The same thing with Emily [Arlook]— you know, she acts as a writer, because she is a writer. I was so lucky in that cast. I always joke and say, “This is it. I’m on fire.” But I wish that I could say that I had anything other than getting lucky and picking some good people.
Some characters have identities that work against each other, internally and outwardly, but the friendships are believable.
We want to take different points of view and that’s why we put them all in Charlie’s class. The fucked up part is nine out of 10 times, when you go to college, you’re put into your lane. You find your tribe and your tribe is a little bit, sort of like you. If you’re a little bit of a weirdo, you go around the weirdos. If you’re a little bit of a goth, or a little bit of a this person, a little bit of a that — you go around your tribe and that’s great. But the hard part about that is it doesn’t really allow you to grow.
We were like, “How do we take a different group of people, put them in [one] place, and make it seem organic how they became friends?” That was the whole pilot. Freeform let us show two episodes at once; if you were to take [the pilot] on its own, it’s really so set-up-y —you don’t really get what the show is. But we really felt that in order to get the show, you have to know the characters first, and that’s what the first episode was doing.
In “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” when Zoey starts taking Adderall, you just went full-speed ahead in episode two.
Yes. We want it to feel like that’s kind of what happens in college. Once you get there and you’re out the house, there’s no parents anymore, and you find yourself. I just saw Lady Bird and it was a perfect little movie The reason that I responded to it was, I loved from the moment I walked in — I walked in about 30 seconds late — and I heard the main character saying, “The best part about 2002 is it’s a palindrome.” And I was like, ah, I found home. But I love that her first night in college, she ended up in a fucking emergency room. That, to me, did not really exploit it for fake. It rung, for me, as someone who’s trying to find themselves.
At the end of that episode, Zoey continues to take Adderall. Is grown-ish going to be more serialized?
It is completely serialized and that is one of the fun things about the difference [with] black-ish. A couple of reviews [said] “It’s not funny like black-ish.” It’s not meant to be, and there’s no way to tell people that before. People just think, “It’s a spin-off,” so the tone is gonna be the same, but it is a spinoff only in that it’s taking one of our characters. It is not a laugh-out-loud, dingy, riot-y show. We’re trying to be more grounded. It’s definitely about the journey. Let’s do a serialized journey that really is how college is: that first year of what it’s like to be in school.
Are grown-ish and black-ish going to overlap?
Yeah, Anthony [Anderson] comes out two or three times. Tracee [Ellis Ross] visits. We plan on having it as it would with any kid that goes away to college. Sometimes your little brother might come, sometimes you’re home washing clothes, you’re home for the holidays, you might still go away on vacation with the family. We would like to do it in the way the real world works.