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Real-life inspiration notwithstanding, The CW’s All American seemed to fit pretty squarely into the template of high school dramas set in ultra-posh neighborhoods. But as a character notes a couple of episodes into its brand-new spinoff, All American: Homecoming, college is a different ballgame, honey. Homecoming is attempting something different than its predecessor was — less soapy, more down-to-earth — and if it’s not quite as addictive to start, it’s still a likable companion piece that tackles the unique challenges of life after high school with warmth and understanding.
Not that you need to have seen the original in the first place, since Homecoming‘s determination to do its own thing extends to its plot. Though it certainly doesn’t hurt to go back and catch up on the backdoor pilot that aired as part of All American last year, Simone (Geffri Maya) — the Homecoming protagonist who links the two shows — recaps everything a new viewer really needs to know in the first few minutes of the new series.
All American: Homecoming
Airdate: 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21 (The CW)
Cast: Geffri Maya, Peyton Alex Smith, Kelly Jenrette, Cory Hardrict, Sylvester Powell, Camille Hyde, Mitchell Edwards, Netta Walker
Executive producers: Nkechi Okoro Carroll, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, David Madden, Robbie Rogers
The most pertinent details: Simone is an ambitious tennis player from Beverly Hills starting her freshman year at Bringston, a historically Black university in Atlanta, with support from her journalism-professor aunt Amara (Kelly Jenrette) but against the wishes of her Ivy League-obsessed parents. Also new to campus is Damon (Peyton Alex Smith), a charismatic baseball phenom who, to his mother’s profound irritation, has deferred his plans to go pro in favor of enrolling at Bringston and helping the school’s team rebuild under coach Marcus (Cory Hardrict) after a fake-class scandal derailed their last season.
That Simone and Damon, dormmates and fast friends, are headed toward romance seems inevitable, even if Simon’s technically still attached to her All American boyfriend Jordan (Michael Evans Behling); what’s more college than gradually letting go of the high-school sweetheart in favor of the cutie who lives just down the hall? In the meantime, the two leads balance academics, athletics and the squishier project of self-discovery with the help of new friends and adult mentors, and in defiance of unfriendly teammates or disapproving parental figures.
Homecoming‘s sprawling cast allows it to approach the college experience from all angles, some inevitably more compelling than others. The most prominent and most emotionally resonant arc in the first four hourlong episodes sent to critics concerns Simone’s struggles to adjust. Her challenges are built not from dramatic developments but from the compounding burdens of relatively minor setbacks — a housing snafu, a disappointing practice, a keen bout of homesickness. Though Simone works to maintain a cool and composed façade, Maya lets her anxiety show in subtle facial expressions that grow gradually more drawn.
That all of this is happening against the backdrop of an HBCU adds another layer of depth. During the worst of her stress, Simone takes her aunt’s advice to “point to examples of Black excellence and see what is possible,” taking inspiration from the real HBCU alums whose portraits hang in the hallways, like Their Eyes Were Watching God author Zora Neale Hurston. Simone’s journey of self-reflection is echoed in other subplots involving the younger characters, like Damon trying to gel with the teammates who are understandably less than thrilled at the constant reminders he gave up the majors for them, or their RA Keisha (Netta Walker) working up the courage to inform her dad she’s switching majors from premed to dance.
On the flip side, storylines involving the faculty — like Amara and Marcus trying to figure out what exactly president Allen (Leonard Roberts) isn’t telling them about the school’s budgetary woes — are progressing at too slow a burn to hold much interest, at least at this early point in the series. And while it’s not necessarily a bad idea to inject a bit of soapy intrigue into an otherwise low-key drama, a subplot involving a character’s mysterious parentage feels downright goofy in context, as if it’s been imported from another series entirely.
But even as the series stumbles into the occasional rough patch, Homecoming‘s dependable north star is its generosity of spirit. Its storylines tend to revolve around the ways its characters come through for each other while trying to become better people themselves, whether that means guiding someone through a panic attack, opening up about their true fears or simply apologizing when they’ve failed to listen to someone else’s needs. What the plots in juicy twists or epic emotions, they make up for with a warm sense of community, often built over the weekly “family dinners” that Simone hosts at her aunt Amara’s house.
If Homecoming, like its lead characters, still seems to be trying out this and that to see what clicks, that’s part of the charm right now. “It’s hard finding something that fits who I am when I feel like I’m a work in progress, minus the progress,” Simone sighs to her friends while picking out school outfits in the second episode. But Homecoming seems to know what Simone doesn’t: that that very capacity for growth and change can be the core of a winning identity.
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