The CW series All American will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's ever watched The O.C or Friday Night Lights. It will also feel familiar to anyone who's seen one of those heartwarming "troubled black kid from the ghetto with promise" flicks. It perhaps is most familiar to The Blind Side, the 2009 film in which Sandra Bullock adopts a black kid and helps him become an NFL star, which sits at the touchy-feely nexus of both of these templates.
As a collage of these touch points, All American mostly works, but it does have a few twists away from the recognizable formula: All American's hero Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is plucked from South Los Angeles to live with a (mostly) black family in Beverly Hills, but the structural inequality that led Spencer to be marooned on the hard side of town in the first place actually gets addressed. So yes, you've seen All American before, but despite its cliches, the first three episodes The CW sent to us in advance deem All American an engrossing, timely and relevant high school drama with loads of potential.
Perhaps not all of All American's predictability was avoidable though, in fairness. Like The Blind Side, All American is based on the true-but-familiar story of a pro athlete, Spencer Paysinger, a former NFL player (Giants, Jets and more) who trekked from South Los Angeles to Beverly Hills to play football as a youth. South Los Angeles, immortalized in Boyz in the Hood and NWA songs, may not be as dangerous today as it's been depicted in the past, but the most glaring problem it faced then and faces now is a lack of options, which All American paints subtly and powerfully.
Forget the Beemers and designer clothes the kids in Beverly Hills have: Spencer's neighborhood doesn't have movie theaters or Whole Foods stores, or summer jobs and internships at tech companies. Athletics really is one of the only proven, viable routes out of his neighborhood, where gangs bloom amid decay. So when Spencer is scouted by Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) to go to Beverly Hills High for a shot at a better future, there's little doubt, besides Spencer's initial resistance (because that's how it goes in these stories), he'll end up there. His hardworking, respectable single mom Grace (Karimah Westbrook) backs him, and he's shipped off to a new, almost entirely white school that's only 15 miles away but a galaxy apart.
Almost everything that happens next -- Spencer encounters hazing from his teammates, Spencer deals with racism, Spencer struggles to adapt, Spencer likes girls out of his league -- comes as surely as the next crosstown bus, or more to the point, the next scene in the football show or movie you've already seen. But All American is baked in truth, and the truth is kids like Spencer are less likely to graduate, almost four times as likely to live in poverty and almost 20 times as likely to be incarcerated as the kids in Beverly Hills. Apparently this story needs to be retold over and over for Americans to see and fix the real odds Spencer faces, and one of the things All American does well is make viewers live in this disparity in a way that doesn't seem exploitative and cheap. Better still, All American upends the notion that a "golden ticket out of the ghetto" fantasy is a coveted prize. Instead, All American shows the complexity and beauty in the underserved community too, since Spencer sojourns back home often.
One way it does this especially well is through the eyes of Spencer's best friend Tiana "Coop" Cooper, played by Empire's Bre-Z. With one foot in the street life and the other guiding Spencer's steps, she's a moral guide and also openly gay -- or, at least, openly gay with her friends. Her story about reconciling her sexuality with her religious family dynamics (her mom is a preacher) becomes significant, and another fresh, poignant point of distinction from All American's influences.
Bre-Z, slightly unbelievable as a teenager (sorry Bre-Z), is nevertheless a solid performer with depth; Daniel Ezra is outstanding, both in the show's beautiful football scenes and off the field, even if the script has him going to near-nuclear levels of violent anger for even the slightest provocations. The Angry Black Guy is another of All American's redundancies but then, Spencer has plenty to be angry about and when he blows up, you feel for the kid. Spencer is as American as the rich (mostly white) kids he's now colleagues with, but the injustices life handed him simply for being born give All American juicy dramatic meat to bite into.
There's another whopper of a distinction between All American and its forefathers and this is the big one: Billy, the man who brings Spencer into his home, is probably the father who abandoned him in the first place. That's the clear, blatantly obvious mystery that (sorry for spoiling it!) is discernible by end of the first episode. How All American plans to extend that thinly masked puzzle remains to be seen. Fortunately, there's enough else going on -- what with Spencer's school life, dealing with Coach Baker's son (and likely half-brother) Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), as well as Spencer's dramas back in his old neighborhood -- to make All American work once that "I am your father!" thing inevitably runs its course.
Here's the thing though: the real Spencer, unlike CW Spencer, apparently had male role models -- his uncles and his dad played football at Beverly High. Knowing that makes All American's decision to go down the "absent father, struggling single mother" road a clear and deliberate choice, one that repurposes a myth about black life we've seen 1,000 already, a myth not even true to the source material.
Perhaps that's inconsequential: On the whole, All American scores big as a tale about flying high while staying true to your roots, and it's a needed entry into the high school football drama genre. When it breaks free from well-worn plays we've already seen -- especially cliches and easy stereotypes -- it just might soar.
All American premieres Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 9/8c on The CW.
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