When ABC passed on its Black-ish spinoff about the Johnsons’ eldest daughter, Zoey, heading off to college, it was an easy decision for Freeform executives to pick up the series for their younger-skewing cable network.
Freeform’s executive vp programming and development Karey Burke said it came down to something very simple: “Two words: Yara Shahidi,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And two more words: Kenya Barris.”
Even before ABC passed on the series, the team at Freeform had been tracking Barris’ show — and immediately leaped at the opportunity to snag the series — and its star — for themselves.
“We were in love with her just as fans at Freeform,” Burke says. “What’s she been doing for Teen Vogue, what she’s been doing as an emerging voice for her generation, as a cultural figure — we have our eyes on all the young talent that we feel are making a difference and making some noise in the world.”
Added Burke, “She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful. She’s generous. She’s thoughtful. She’s funny. She’s everything. She speaks for that generation because she’s not one thing. She’s an activist; she’s an actress; she’s a student; she’s a fashion icon, a role model. My 14-year-old daughter and my 19-year-old daughter look up to her. She has power in the world.”
As a series, however, Grown-ish might be able to do more on Freeform than it ever could on ABC.
“We serve a different audience,” Freeform president Tom Ascheim tells THR. “We spent a lot of time working on saying, ‘OK, this is a show that fundamentally the young adults are at the center of all of the stories. Even in the spinoff pilot that they produced inside of Black-ish there was just more grown-up time on camera. I think in this one, the students are at the center of the show. It’s Zoey’s story and there’s this other great cast around us that are part of her story.”
As a college student in 2018, Zoey’s story involves subject matter that might not have fit on ABC Family before the network’s rebranding. There’s drinking, drugs (cocaine!) and, in the second episode, Zoey takes Adderall.
“This is what happens at college and I think for us to be good at what we do we have to be authentic,” Ascheim says. “The show tries — I think with a sense of humor — to portray what’s really going on in a college life. Black-ish has always been so honest with a sense of humor about the world that the family is facing, this is the world that Zoey’s facing.”
Put simply, “it’s edgier,” says Shahidi. “It’s not what we’re used to seeing of Zoey or many kids. What I really loved is that it allowed us to relish our youth in a way that isn’t usual on network comedies. Because [Freeform is] so aware of their demographic, we were allowed to tell those storylines without so much [interference]. I know the one note we got from ABC — rightfully so, too — was, ‘Where’s the adult presence?’ On Freeform, that isn’t the case, because it is just so much about our stories as these college students and we’re allowed to really revel in it.”
While there will be plenty of organic opportunities to bring characters back and forth between Black-ish and Grown-ish — Anthony Anderson’s Dre appears in the first Freeform episode, and the rest of the Johnsons will drop by at different points; Zoey occasionally will head home to Black-ish — Barris reiterated that the spinoff is Zoey’s story.
“There was a natural translation to her going from her house to college,” Barris says of the decision to spin off that character in particular. “But that’s not to say that Yara doesn’t just sparkle. There’s just some people who the light shines a little brighter on them in the room, and she’s one of those kinds of people. I met Yara when she was a kid. … I’ve seen her grow up, and I’m so proud of her to see what she’s become on her own, as Yara, and how different she is from Zoey. It showed me what she could do as an actress, how much she could stretch her arms. She puts this show on her back.”
Shahidi is joined by a stacked ensemble, which includes singer-actor Trevor Jackson, fashion influencer Luka Sabbat, musical sister duo Chloe and Halle Bailey (aka YouTubers Chloe x Halle, who wrote and perform the theme song), and teen drama vet Francia Raisa (Secret Life of the American Teenager).
“It’s fucking St. Elmo’s Fire. I engineered these people,” Barris joked. “No, it was so luck of the draw. And really hard work. Amazing casting people brought amazing people together, but it really was the combination. It is so interesting how certain elements by themselves are just certain elements, but then you put them together and they make something beautiful.”
The young cast — the majority of the actors are in their late teens and early 20s — help Barris and the writing staff with stories, as do his daughter, a USC freshman, and her friends. That personal connection has made Grown-ish even more special an experience for Barris, who serves as showrunner on both series.
“Because this is new and it’s my baby, I’m super protective of it. And I feel like the network has given me a lot of faith in getting this together. I want to see it be a success. I want to people to see what we see in this show. It’s really important to me,” he says.
For her part, Freeform exec Burke says she’s never felt Barris give anything less than 100 percent to the show. “I don’t know how he does it, because he gives everything to Black-ish and he gives everything to Grown-ish, and the movies he writes, and the other shows he has coming. He’s been a joy,” she says. “He’s deeply, deeply impressive in the amount of passion and attention to detail that he puts into the shows. I knew he was supremely talented and passionate, but I didn’t know, I was surprised by his level of commitment to detail. He oversaw the promo shoot. He oversaw every detail about the main title. Every musical choice. He’s just a perfectionist in the greatest way.”
But that perfectionism is taking a toll. “I’m fucking exhausted, dude,” Barris confesses. “I’m burned the fuck out.”
While he does want to continue to be involved in both shows, Barris knows that it’s not something he can sustain for much longer. “It has been more difficult than I ever thought it would be,” he says. “I feel like Black-ish has a different love in my heart, a different place. Because it is a cultural talking point and right now that’s an important thing, to be able to have that platform to talk. I’ve been given the opportunity, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.”
For the time being, he’ll continue to run both series.
“I’m really tired, but my family has been really supportive in saying right now it’s something I have to do,” he said. “Obviously I can’t do this forever — or even for much longer — but I think I can hopefully try to make it successful.”
Grown-ish premieres Jan. 3 on Freeform.