Under normal circumstances, Dre Johnson’s bratty, me-first perspective is one of Black-ish’s most irritating qualities. But in “All Groan Up,” Dre’s tantrums suddenly feel justified — and even relatable. The Johnsons have spent much of Black-ish’s third season coming to grips with the reality that Zoey will be heading off to college soon, and “Groan” begins with Zoey’s acceptance to several colleges, most really far away from California. Dre tells Bow in no uncertain terms that he loves Zoey more than she does, which again, sounds really annoying at first, but there’s a solid case to be made for Dre’s claim. He has never made an effort to hide that his firstborn daughter is his favorite child, so he’d understandably take Zoey’s impending flight from the nest harder than anyone.
Unfortunately, once Dre and Bow get all sentimental about how their kids are growing up and asserting their independence, they express themselves in the sitcom language of flashback montages. Single-camera comedies revel in flashbacks and cutaways, which are often the funniest gags an episode has to offer. But it’s easy to go overboard with flashbacks, so “Groan” winds up feeling more like a clip show than anything else. (Usually, those kinds of episodes are only done after a sitcom has banked way more than three seasons’ worth of material.)
ABC also didn’t do “Groan” any favors by airing it directly after “Sister, Sister,” another episode that dealt with Dre’s acute anxiety about losing his tight bond with Zoey. In that episode, Zoey sits her father down and explains that he’ll have to find another one of his kids to hang out with now that she’s going away to college. Dre attempts to bond with Junior instead, watching Game of Thrones with him and raging at Junior’s failure to warn him about the Red Wedding. The experiment ultimately fails, but Dre walks away from the experience slightly comforted by the idea of bonding with his other kids in ways he hasn’t always tried to with Zoey around.
So it’s a bit jarring to see Dre back to fretting about Zoey’s future, but it made more sense once I had a look at this season’s production codes. Apparently, “Sister, Sister” was the last episode produced for the season, even though it’s airing weeks before the finale. Black-ish has been doing the airdate shuffle since it began, and usually the fudged timeline doesn’t call attention to itself. That’s not the case here, where Zoey is seen rescinding her favorite-child status with Dre because she’s going to college soon … before she actually finds out whether she’s been admitted to any of the schools she applied to.
Beyond the anachronistic storytelling, “Groan” just isn’t as sharp as Black-ish normally is because so many of its best moments are retreads. (I, for one, never again need to see a hyperactive Junior spilling hot coffee on himself at Stevens and Lido, a sight gag Black-ish loves too much to set it free.) Luckily, Deon Cole is still stepping up as this show’s unsung hero. His Charlie Telphy is to Stevens and Lido what Creed Bratton was to Dunder-Mifflin. “Does she ever ask about me?” Charlie says to Dre about Rainbow. “Be honest.” May Charlie never change. Diane, Charlie’s sworn enemy, also gets a nice joke when she reveals, through her enthusiasm for Zoey’s decision to attend NYU, the fact that she’s been secretly watching Sex and the City.
It’s Diane and Jack who convince Zoey that getting far away from California and establishing distance from her family is not as important to her as she thought it was. And with that, Black-ish begins solving the problem that faces all long-running family sitcoms: how to keep the children around after they’ve graduated from high school. Zoey has floated her intention to stick closer to Los Angeles, and no one will be surprised if she foregoes dorm life for all the comforts of home.
“Groan” has a thankless job as the episode to untangle the “Zoey has to leave for college” knot, but I wish it didn’t feel quite so halfhearted. Airing the episode out of production sequence didn’t help matters, but truthfully, “Groan” doesn’t feel strong enough to stand on its own. Between two unattractive options, airing the episodes as a block (with the more appealing of the two airing first) was probably the best choice. Hopefully we’ll look back on “Groan” as Black-ish’s graduation from glorified clip shows.