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The CW’s new drama All American has been described as a blend of Friday Night Lights and The O.C.: a football-centric Cinderella story about a gifted young athlete torn between his dream and his home.
Based on the real events of former pro football player Spencer Paysinger’s life, the show follows Spencer (Daniel Ezra), a rising football star from South L.A. who is recruited by the football coach at Beverly Hills High (Taye Diggs) and introduced to a world vastly different from his own. But unlike The O.C.’s Ryan Atwood, Spencer isn’t leaving his home behind –he’ll live and study in Beverly Hills during the week, then go home to Crenshaw on weekends, creating a more complex fish-out-of-water story in which both worlds have their ups and downs.
New showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll — who took over for creator April Blair after Blair stepped aside last week for personal reasons —talks with The Hollywood Reporter about inclusive storytelling, tackling issues from gang violence to NFL protests, and what the mysterious final scene in Wednesday’s premiere means.
What can you say about April’s departure, and how are you feeling about taking over the mantle?
I’ve been part of the writers’ room pretty much since the beginning, working with both April and [exec producer] Greg [Berlanti] and the whole team on the show. I was assigned to the show as part of my overall deal here at Warner Bros., and it was a show I wanted to work on once I read the pilot script, because I was just so moved by it. As the mother of two black boys, I want to see this show on television. So I’ve been involved since the start, and when April stepped down and Greg asked if I would be interested in stepping up into the showrunner position, I was happy and excited to do it. We’ve got an amazing creative team here, and we look forward to continuing to tell these stories that I think haven’t really been told on network TV.
How much of a transition period has there been for you as you’ve taken over?
It’s been pretty great — everything’s just kind of kept moving, I think the biggest change is that I’m in more meetings than I was before. Other than that, we have an exceptional room and [the writers] picked up the ball and kept going. For me, it was just a case of managing my schedule a little differently, but it’s been a pretty smooth transition here.
What is All American bringing to network TV that other teen dramas haven’t?
One of the things that The CW and WB do really well is tell the “teen drama” in a multitude of different ways. For starters, I think All American is one of the most inclusive shows on the network across the board, not just in terms of race, but in terms of sexual identity. I also think it’s a relatable story in that, even though it’s about a young boy from South Central who moves to Beverly Hills, it’s relatable for anyone who has a dream and wants to use the talents that they’ve been given for good. I think it’ll help remind people that on a cellular level, we’re not really that different, and sometimes we just need to be reminded of that.
The show is based on Spencer Paysinger’s real life, but also fictionalized. How do you balance those two elements?
Spencer’s a consultant on the show, and we always love having him in to talk about stories from his life, and we use those as a jumping-off point to create the stories that we have in each episode. It’s really a good mix of taking moments from Spencer’s life or inspiration from stuff that happened in Spencer’s life, and then incorporating our own personal experiences with that to tell the best version of the story we’re trying to tell. We’re always checking in with him, because another thing that makes the show special is that it is inspired by true events, and it’s important to us to keep it grounded in that. We think it’s an important selling point and an important message to send out to America: We’re not making this up in the writers’ room, it really is inspired by true events, and one person really can make a difference.
During pilot season, the show was compared to Friday Night Lights and The O.C. How apt are those comparisons?
The FNL comparison is inevitable, and it’s a show that handled the football community beautifully, and what it is to be a high school football player. For us, All American is a show that happens to have football in it, and will speak to high school football culture, but it’s so much bigger than that, and it’s really about the fight off the field, and the blending of two worlds, and having one person be the catalyst to open up both these worlds and the people in them to each other.
The O.C. comparison is also inevitable, with the fish-out-of-water thing, but one thing that’s very important to us on this show is that we not leave Crenshaw behind, and that Crenshaw is a part of the show. Just as in real life, Spencer did not leave his community behind, nor did we want to do that on the show.
Right, because The O.C. spends almost no time in Chino at all.
Absolutely, and for us, we felt like the best way to tell the story of the two worlds was to make sure that we were capturing the two worlds, in all their beauty and flaws. It’s not a story of leaving one bad place and going to a good place to be saved. It’s more about there being pros and cons to both worlds, and how do we navigate them and bring out the best in both?
We spend a significant amount of time in Crenshaw on the show, and we shoot in South L.A., which is almost like a character on the show as well. It’s great to be able to shoot in the community where Spencer actually came from. The community there have been so supportive of what we’re doing. We’re hard to miss, we come with a gazillion trucks, so people often come out and ask what we’re shooting, and we tell them, and everyone is so excited and interested and seem happy that we’re there. We feel so welcomed, and that’s one of the reasons why we keep pushing to make sure we go back there and shoot stuff there, because we just feel so much a part of the community. We also hope that they feel like we’re helping them be seen, and be seen in a way that isn’t often shown on network TV.
Given the rise of NFL protests in real life, have you discussed tackling subjects like taking a knee in the show?
Of course, we’ve talked about it, and it’s something we are interested in tackling. For us, the important thing is how do we tackle it in our All American way? Addressing socially conscious issues is very important to us, and has become part of the fabric of the show, because it’s also something that’s important in the real Spencer’s life. We don’t shy away from tough conversations at all, about race, about class, and the same is going to go for football. Those are the kinds of stories we talk about all the time in the writers’ room.
What other issues do you intend to tackle in the show?
Spencer is a young black boy in America, and inevitably we’re going to have conversations around that. There are going to be circumstances that highlight what that means for him, versus what it means for someone like Jordan Baker [Michael Evans Behling], the coach’s son, who’s grown up in a very different environment. The real Spencer also talks a lot about how important it was for him to give back to his community, and that he moved back after the NFL, and he’s just opened his coffee shop there [https://www.laweekly.com/restaurants/everyone-belongs-at-hilltop-coffee-kitchen-9774879] and is working to try and improve the conditions, and be not just a great role model, but reinvest in the community. We’re going to be diving into all sorts of stuff like that.
Beverly High is not predominantly white, as viewers might assume it would be. Was that a conscious choice to make both halves of the show’s world diverse?
Yes, I think part of that was also reflective of the times we live in, moreso than the time Spencer was going to high school. There is a lot more diversity nowadays, and we wanted that to be reflected in the school, so that it wasn’t so much about black vs white, and more a question of class. I know April and Greg and [producer] Robbie [Rogers] were very cognizant from the beginning that they wanted to reflect what we see in schools nowadays, which is an increase in diversity. It allows us to tell a more nuanced story than what people might expect from a story about a boy from Crenshaw moving to Beverly Hills.
How will Coop’s (Bre-Z) coming out storyline develop?
Bre-Z is such a fantastic actress and brings so much authenticity to this role, We want to tell a relatable story, of a girl who wants to feel like she’s loved and accepted for who she is, and I think in our teen society these days that is a constant challenge. We’re telling the story of the challenges Coop is going to face as she searches for that, and the journey we’re going to take the family on. If we can help pave the way for one more person, or help one more person out there feel like they’re seen, then we’ve done our jobs.
What does Robbie Rogers bring to the table?
It was really thanks to Robbie, through his friend [Dane Morck] and their relationship with Spencer Paysinger, that this whole idea even came to be. He’s been an integral part of the process since minute one, and he’s just been a great advocate and supporter and yet another athlete who’s around to help us talk about the difficulties of having that kind of skill level at such a young age, and navigating your youth alongside these high stakes. Everything feels like life and death in high school, but there’s also this added pressure of this gift where you’re destined for athletic greatness. It’s been great to have him around.
Gangs are also part of the show’s world — do you have consultants to advise on that side of things?
We do. We have a couple of different people that come in and speak to the writers, because with those storylines especially, we’re adamant that we want to make sure we’re getting them right and telling their truth authentically. It’s not all that Crenshaw is, but it is a part of the story there, so we have brought in consultants to speak to the authenticity of that experience, and what would really happen and what wouldn’t really happen. They get what we’re trying to do, so there have been times where they’ll say, “It wouldn’t quite go down like that,” but then will also say, “We get the story you’re trying to tell, here’s how to adjust it.” In fact, we did that this morning.
The final scene of the pilot seems to suggest a major twist regarding Coach Baker’s relationship with Spencer and Spencer’s mother. Can you speak to what it may or may not be teasing?
I will not say what it may or may not be teasing! But I will say I don’t think it’s what people think it is. And there’s definitely a lot of layers to what is being setting up at the end of the pilot. I wasn’t here when the pilot was done, but it is both a twist for dramatic effect, and also allows us to really expand the storytelling of these two worlds, and of having Spencer caught between these two worlds. We’ve got some interesting surprises and twists ahead that the audience is not expecting. It is not what people think!
What’s coming up in the next couple of episodes?
We’re really going to see Spencer struggle to balance these two worlds. He’s been the man of the house for his mom and little brother for a very long time, and he’s got friends back home that rely on him, but now he has these additional pressures of living in Beverly Hills during the week and trying to make it work with the team there, and just trying to acclimate to a whole new way of living. We’ll see those pressures start to weigh on him. We’re also going to be exploring identity a lot, and not just for Spencer, but what his arrival means for other people, and how it causes them to hold up a mirror to themselves. It forces people to ask some tough questions when it comes to identity, and where they belong, and explorations of blackness. We definitely don’t shy away from the tough questions.
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