The CW’s All American is the fall’s best new broadcast network drama.
There’s your pull quote, The CW! Take that sucker and run with it, because this review doesn’t get any more complimentary from here. (The CW’s core demographic doesn’t have a clue what a “broadcast network” is, nor that back in the distant past, whatever broadcast networks were, they used to traditionally roll out most of their programming in the fall.)
In the worst fall of broadcast programming in memory, I give All American credit for reminding me of a bunch of my favorite shows and, even if it doesn’t come close to equaling any of them, for having its heart generally in the right place. It’s got some good, likable performances and a truly promising lead in Daniel Ezra, and that’s enough for a conditional recommendation, though through three episodes I’m not sure All American is settling into its own identity with any real authority.
Created by April Blair and inspired somewhat by the life of former New York Giants linebacker Spencer Paysinger, All American (the absence of hyphen hurts me every time) focuses on Spencer James (Ezra), star wide receiver from South Crenshaw High. Raised by a hard-working mother (Karimah Westbrook) with a precocious younger brother (Jalyn Hall), Spencer has big dreams, which may be limited by his dangerous neighborhood, in which gunshots can interrupt football celebrations and police helicopters are a pervasive feature.
Opportunity to escape the drive-bys and gangbangers comes in the form of Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), coach of the Beverly Hills High Eagles and a former NFL player. Billy is coming off a run of losing seasons and Spencer could be his best hope to save his position. Soon Spencer is uprooted to Beverly Hills, forcing him to leave his family and best friend Coop (Bre-Z) behind and also causing conflict with Coach Baker’s QB son Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and the team’s existing star wide receiver Asher (Cody Christian).
In terms of the show’s most basic DNA, All American is Friday Night Lights meets The OC, right down to the multiple times characters declare “Welcome to Beverly Hills!” and to Spencer’s brother being named “Dillon” (if it isn’t a reference, it sure ought to be). That’s good DNA, but also dangerous DNA because you’re almost invariably going to have a difficult time measuring up to two of the best pilots ever made — two pilots that fully established their foundations in their initial installments.
All American does a fine job of setting up its world, especially the Crenshaw side, where Coop’s story, as a confident young lesbian forced to interact with a criminal element after Spencer’s departure leaves her without a friend and protector, is carried by a fine Bre-Z performance and often is more compelling than the A-story in these early episodes. Blair and pilot director Rob Hardy are determined to give the neighborhood texture and they’re conscious of the need to steer away from stereotypes. No such effort is evident amid the opulence of Beverly Hills, and the mixture of fancy cars and buff, preppy hardbodies is all too familiar. The Beverly Hills material is in desperate need of a supporting character with humor to cut through the superficiality and artifice, yet no such comic relief exists.
The show’s main conceit is completely realistic. High school sports transfers are an ethically murky epidemic that flows perfectly into the even shadier world of the NCAA and college sports. This, plus its treatment of race relations, ought to be enough to fuel a show for several seasons without any contrivances. Where All American stumbles is in crafting the artificial drama within what already ought to be a fraught premise.
Complaining about the depiction of the football is petty and, if I’m being honest, it was rarely the thing Friday Night Lights did best either, yet a disproportionate amount of the early conflict is generated by Asher’s racially infused resentment of the new player in town — a rivalry that could have been solved by somebody simply saying, “Ummm…. You know football teams that aren’t running some sort of strange option package can line up two wide receivers at once and that it is, in fact, a rather ideal luxury, especially for a quarterback, to have two good wide receivers on a roster?” Nobody says this and the tensions between Asher and Spencer are comically broad and made more so when Asher’s dad turns out to be a powerful booster whose own racism makes his son’s look subtle. There’s more natural and plausible conflict in Jordan’s concern over his father’s wavering attention.
I had trouble with what is feigned as a love triangle with Coach’s daughter Olivia (Samantha Logan) and stunning class president Leila (Greta Onieogou), which isn’t actually a love triangle at all, nor is it really interesting. The two characters, neither boasting any voice to speak of and both haunted by perfunctory demons of their own, have a storyline involving the movie Anonymous — yes, the impossibly silly and self-serious Roland Emmerich effort — that I can’t begin to justify. And trust me, I’ve tried.
The series also struggles with a pilot-ending twist involving Coach Baker that’s simultaneously predictable, excessive and raises very rudimentary logistical questions I really don’t think the show wants me asking. For his part, Diggs cuts a solid figure of authority without having much else to work with either in terms of his own character or Coach Baker’s relationship with wife Laura (Monet Mazur), again left in the dust of the Taylors (Friday Night Lights) and Cohens (The OC).
Ultimately, the most important thing All American has going for it and the element that will likely keep me watching is Ezra. The seamless erasure of his British accent has me wanting to compare Ezra to John Boyega in Imperial Dreams and Detroit, only better. Between the note-perfect American accent and as plausible a physical impression of football playing as one could possibly do given the music-video-style editing of every athletic sequence, Ezra quickly alleviates any “Who casts a Brit as the lead in a show called All American?” snark. The parts of All American that I liked best almost all featured Spencer and Coop, because Ezra and Bre-Z are so good and theirs is the dynamic that doesn’t feel like a refugee from something I liked previously and more.
Some seasons, that would be enough for a “Wait and see” or a “Not bad for The CW” or a “This is in my wheelhouse, but I’m not sure everybody will love it.” This fall, my expectations are dramatically lowered, so congrats to All American for being at the top of the heap.
Cast: Daniel Ezra, Taye Diggs, Samantha Logan, Bre-Z, Greta Onieogou, Monet Mazur, Michael Evans Behling, Cody Christian and Karimah Westbrook.
Creator: April Blair
Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, premiering Oct. 10.