This week’s episode of BLACK-ISH wasn’t really an episode of Black-ish. It was the backdoor pilot for a spinoff centering on Zoey at college, which would premiere midseason next year, if ABC decides to go through with it. The episode opens with Dre dropping Zoey off at the fictional Cal U for a two day orientation, starting with the customary Dre voiceover that begins each episode. That is, until Zoey takes over voiceover duties, symbolically letting viewers know that this is her show now.
The proposed spinoff’s cast includes Mallory Sparks as Miriam, a Jewish freshman who Zoey bonds with instantly, Trevor Jackson as Aaron, a hot black activist who encourages Zoey to join the BSU (Black Student Union), Chris Parnell as Bert Parker, the dean of students who clashes with the university president Jonathan Shock played by Matt Walsh of Veep fame, as Parker thinks he was unfairly passed over for the position. Also: Charlie (Deon Cole), Dre’s co-worker and fan favorite, is involved. He’s an adjunct professor teaching a marketing class at night to a room full of mostly prostitutes.
Zoey’s college experience doesn’t start off smoothly. She learns that she wasn’t assigned housing—Dre was supposed to mail in the housing application, but got distracted when he learned that the McRib was back. He defends himself by saying that the McRib “disappears and reappears when it wants, like Pops”, which is a funny nod to the fact that Laurence Fishburne’s character isn’t always there. Zoey decides to take matters into her own hands and ask President Shock for housing herself.
Unfortunately, Shock and Parker confuse her for a representative from Hawkins Hall, the all-black dorm on campus. Shock has just learned that Hawkins exists and he is not happy about it—he considers it segregation and thinks that it will hurt his chances at getting donations to build the elaborate aquatic center he wants. Zoey, not quite sure what’s going on, agrees that segregation is bad. Shock, delighted that the discussion went so smoothly, tells her that he’s going to shut down Hawkins and that she can live with everyone else.
Zoey and Miriam go to see Aaron, who lives in Hawkins. Zoey quickly realizes what she did. She tries to defend herself by pointing out that in any other circumstance, saying she was against segregation would have been the right answer, but Aaron doesn’t have time for that excuse. He dismissively calls her “a mixed girl from Encino” and says he knew from the start that she wasn’t down. Miriam tries to prove that she’s more than just a basic white girl by announcing that she’s made out with two black guys, which is such a basic white girl argument. Luckily Zoey shuts her up before she can embarrass herself further.
Zoey, Aaron, and Miriam go to plead with Shock and Parker to keep Hawkins Hall open. Zoey says that it’s not segregation it’s congregation, but Shock isn’t buying it. Zoey then uses a lesson she learned from Charlie’s marketing class—she rebrands the issue into something Shock can use to get donations for the aquatic center. They aren’t segregated dorms, they’re culturally diverse hotbeds of student engagement. Shock is so impressed with this that he makes her the university’s new student cultural liaison. She protests at first, but when Shock tells her it’s the only way she’ll get housing, she agrees.
“Liberal Arts” was a solid episode, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a watered-down version of Netflix’s excellent Dear White People. Both that show and this potential spinoff deal with controversy over a traditionally all-black dorm, the BSU, and Aaron’s hot activist brings to mind the Netflix series’ Reggie. This spinoff would be a sitcom on ABC. It could never push the issues as far as a series on Netflix, so it felt like a cheap imitation. It’s possible that if this spinoff got picked up to series, it would find ways to differentiate itself. It’s just bad timing that this episode aired so close to Dear White People, as it pales in comparison.
Season 3, Episode 23 (S03E23)
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 930PM on ABC
Jennifer Trofa | Contributor