The first trailer for The CW’s All American inspired a wave of breathless hope — was this a new O.C.? Friday Night Lights? The story is inspired by the real life of Spencer Paysinger, as far as it being about a talented young man with NFL aspirations who is more or less adopted by a Beverly Hills family to make that happen. But as far as the series as a whole, which comes from April Blair, its inspirations are clearly the wave of early 2000s teen dramas that came before it. That is in no way a bad thing; like romcoms or other tried and true formulas, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make it good. And since there have been a dearth of high school dramas on TV lately (that don’t involve superpowers or murders of some kind), All American’s setup is refreshing for being so familiar.
Like its true-life namesake, All American stars Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) as a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to be a professional football player. He’s scouted early on by the coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) of Beverly Hills High, who needs a ringer to help them get back to a winning record. He convinces Spencer that to reach his goals he needs to relocate, and thanks to some hocus pocus, he’s able to do so more or less without penalty (high schools are not allowed to recruit mid-season for talent, and it typically results in a suspension). Eventually, folks are tipped off to whatever loophole Baker used to get Spencer on his team, which means Spencer needs to live with Baker and his family in Beverly Hills to keep playing.
Yes, it’s basically The O.C., except Ryan is a black sports star. There’s no Seth Cohen, though, as Baker’s two kids are both very cool and popular. His son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) is the team’s QB, but also battles insecurities about pleasing his dad who only seems to believe in Spencer’s talents. Daughter Olivia (Samantha Logan) is one of Spencer’s first friends at his new school, but reveals she has her own inner demons after having been to rehab. But if you think the beautiful Olivia is the Marisa Cooper of this story, think again — that distinction belongs to Greta Onieogou as Leila Faisal, the kind and lonely rich girl who Spencer immediately falls in love with, much to the distaste of Leila’s jock boyfriend Asher (Cody Christian), who vows to get rid of him.
Like any good CW series, All American immediately sets up love triangles and squares and all kinds of possible permutations for its teen characters, who look and act like they are at least college-aged (being in LA also gives the production plenty of excuses to put the cast in beach wear and show off the guys’ super-ripped physiques). But that’s always been part of the fantasy of a good teen drama, and All American embraces it, allowing its charismatic cast to make up for any logic gaps in the script.
The other side of All American is its fish out of water tale, as Spencer is caught between two worlds. It’s not just an economic issue, as he leaves behind his good friend Tiana, a.k.a. “Coop” (Bre-Z) — a lesbian struggling to come out to her mother — to be influenced by members of a local gang who want her to join. One of the key dichotomies of All American is also a racial one. Though Billy is black, his wife is white and his kids are mixed; and while Spencer isn’t the only black kid at Beverly Hills High, he still definitely stands out in a sea of beige. Though the show peppers in a few scenes of confrontations with police and lightly touches on culture clashes, it hasn’t yet dived deep enough to make those feel like more than an excuse for some After-School Special kind of conversations (unlike, say, a show like Black Lightning that is very much focused on the experiences within the black community and how that translates to the larger world). That kind of hurried pacing is also an issue, as the series rushes through plot points to keep things moving quickly without allowing for much depth to its many characters or the issues they face, leaving a lot of it feeling one-dimensional.
As for football, like Friday Night Lights, All American doesn’t spend a ton of time on the field, but the editing and “it’s all come down to this one play!” setups are fine. The show isn’t really about football, of course, but about growing up and dealing with friends and family and maybe school occasionally (if you think the sports are ignored, spare some thoughts for the classroom!) The series is, wisely, cagey about what grade its leads are in — after three episodes I still could not tell you how old they are — but it doesn’t really matter. We all know they’ll graduate together and go to UCLA at some point in the next three to five years, if the series continues that long. And by all rights, it should. All American is not a revelation on the TV landscape, but maybe it’s a step forward in reviving a genre that could use some refreshing. The series isn’t yet as good or groundbreaking as some of its teen drama forebears, but it’s interesting and entertaining enough to deserve the chance to get there.
All American premieres Wednesday, October 10th on The CW.