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How All American Built an Authentic Rags-to-Riches Story Without Sacrificing the Soap

Creator April Blair explains why Spencer's story is universal

Megan Vick

All American is the only new show on The CW this fall that doesn't have a paranormal or supernatural element. It's also inspired by the life of football player Spencer Paysinger, who transferred from a high school in south Los Angeles to one in Beverly Hills and eventually went on to play in the NFL.

Creator April Blair, who recently stepped down as showrunner and executive producer for personal reasons, didn't grow up in Crenshaw or play football. She's also not black, but she knew that Paysinger's story had a universal quality to it and wanted to put it on TV.

"I'm a middle-aged white lady telling the story of a young black man in America. There's a lot that I can't speak to about that. I don't know what it's like to be afraid of the police. I don't know what it feels like to have my food rations thrown at me," Blair told TV Guide at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August.

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All American follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a young athlete recruited from Crenshaw High by the well-meaning Coach Baker (Taye Diggs) to play football for Beverly Hills. Spencer immediately becomes a fish out of water as he tries to survive in the plastic bubble of 90210 without also losing touch with his south side roots. To assist in adapting Paysinger's story, Blair made sure to surround herself with knowledgable people, including Paysinger, so that All American was dramatic but also authentic.

"I really had to do a lot of soul searching, and [dive deep], and talk a lot with Spencer," she said. "When we brought on Ralph Hardy, the director, [I] really leaned on them to help me speak a truth that, on a heart level, I feel like I connect to Spencer... I really surrounded myself with people who can help me do that in an authentic grounded and responsible way."

The writers' room of All American is also built to make sure that Blair has people to call her out if she's trying to depict something that doesn't feel real.

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"More than 50 percent, at least, of our writers' room is African-American. I was very clear early on, 'Please, please, please, as liberal and as unprejudiced as I think I am, there's conditioning that I don't even know I have, so you have to call me out and tell me any time I'm leaning into a trope,'" she explained. "They'll bring [things] to us that we don't think about. We have a real distinct system of checks and balances in the room about that. And they have the freedom to always tell me, 'I wouldn't say it like this. This is not an accurate story. This is what it feels like to be a black man when you get pulled over by the police.'"

While Paysinger's story was the inspiration for the show, Blair planned to elevate the drama of Paysinger's real experiences to create a cinematic experience for the audience. However, while the show is already drawing comparisons to Friday Night Lights and The O.C., Blair was thinking it felt like something else entirely.

"We used his story as a jumping off point, and then as a resource to talk to us about what life in that world was like on an authentic level... It's kind of like Scandal, there you go. You know how Olivia Pope was based on that real fixer?" she said. "We have a whole other section that is very like Straight Outta Compton, you know -- what it means to be black in America in a neighborhood that is underprivileged, and so we're trying to mix it with all of those, but I would say it really is something in and of itself. Even though I reference [The] O.C., or reference Friday Night Lights, I feel like it kind of became it's own special thing."

All American premieres Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 9/8c on The CW.

(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies)

Daniel Ezra, All American​

Daniel Ezra, All American

Jesse Giddings, Jesse Giddings/The CW

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that All American is the only new show this fall on The CW without a supernatural influence.