“Liberal Arts” is a difficult episode of Black-ish to review. Mostly because it’s not an episode of Black-ish. The news about Yara Shahidi’s Zoey spinning off into her own show has been around for awhile. “Liberal Arts” functions as a pilot above anything else. In fact, “Liberal Arts” is a reunion between original Black-ish pilot creators Kenya Barris, Larry Wilmore and director James Griffiths. Despite this seasoned crew running things behind the scenes, the episode still features the hallmark unease of a pilot. New locations, friends, and antagonists are quickly introduced to set up the dynamics we can expect when we follow Zoey to campus next year.

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If we want to accept “Liberal Arts” as Black-ish cannon, it could be seen as the first episode where Zoey really gets to branch out on her own. Dre and Bow make brief cameos, but Zoey interrupts Dre’s typical voiceover to make it clear—she can tell her own story. That, however, might be the biggest issue with “Liberal Arts.” The episode is a whole lot of telling, not showing. After Zoey upsets “all the black people on campus” she’s inspired by Charlie’s pa$hun speech to make things right. We see her run around campus and explain herself to her new found friends, but the entire thing takes place as a montage. We don’t actually see what Zoey’s passion looks like until she’s confronting the Dean. We’re still waiting to see Zoey’s story. While Miriam is a fellow pre-frosh visiting campus, what makes Aaron, an established member of the Black Student Union, trust Zoey with the important issue of his housing?

It doesn’t help that Trevor Jackson plays Aaron with a stiffness that makes any chemistry between him and Shahidi unbelievable. I could understand if Aaron was annoyed with Zoey’s pre-student enthusiasm and it would’ve been great character development to have Zoey get knocked down a peg in her new environment. Instead, things work out pretty easily for her. Even though she’s not officially a student, she’s given a student administration position on campus before the semester even begins. She still feels like the same cool, lucky Zoey who’s glided gracefully through three seasons of Black-ish. Of course, this is just a pilot, but it doesn’t do a great job of laying out potential conflicts for Zoey.

“Liberal Arts” does do a great job of building Zoey’s campus relationships, however. Zoey’s chemistry with her new friend Miriam was the highlight of the episode. Zoey’s character has always suffered because she doesn’t really interact with anyone outside of the Johnson family. Mallory Sparks’ Miriam feels like she would fit into both the traditional world of Black-ish and Zoey’s spin-off. The character felt more developed than Aaron and I’d love to see how she plays off of Dre, Junior, and Bow.

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Chris Parnell and Matt Walsh find great chemistry between each other in the episode. The dynamic between Parnell’s bitter Dean Parker and Walsh’s aloof President Schock helps build interest in the world of the spin-off outside of Black-ish’s typical characters. Parnell and Walsh are sitcom MVPs and they easily anchor the episode. Zoey’s interactions with them make “Liberal Arts” feel like a show outside of Black-ish, but the episode could’ve capitalized on this even more by introducing us to more professors and characters on the campus.

Instead, the episode cheats us of that experience by finding a nonsense way to rope Charlie into the plot. I love Charlie. Charlie is one of Black-ish’s gems, but that’s the thing––he’s thoroughly a Black-ish character. Yes, Deon Cole is hilarious during his 1 A.M. marketing course filled with strippers, but his presence didn’t feel necessary. Zoey could’ve been motivated by an actual professor and it would’ve worked as a touching moment. It’s just hard to believe that Zoey would take advice from a man who has an ongoing rivalry with her kid sister and opened a credit card to buy silk boots her dad wore once. Zoey and Charlie have never had any particularly interesting moments between them, so his presence just felt entirely out of left field.

“Liberal Arts” isn’t a Black-ish episode. It’s a promising pilot that does well by Zoey and builds an interesting world that deserves to be explored. Hopefully the show’s actual pilot takes the opportunity to do this, rather than lean on Black-ish’s best bits.

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Stray observations

  • The comparisons to A Different World are going to happen, but Miriam looks so much like Marisa Tomei it’s eerie.
  • I died when Aaron greeted Zoey with “queen.” That was a far too real moment and I need all BSU dudes to get a new line.
  • “Bow, it was the McRib! It disappears and reappears when it wants, like Pops!” - I think this is the first line that really explains Pops’ absence this season and I’m fine with it.
  • The comparisons to Dear White People will inevitably happen too, but that feels unnecessary. Kenya Barris’ writing has never felt derivative and there are plenty of campus experience stories to tell.

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