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When basketball fans gather to discuss the Greatest of All Time, the debates tend to be comparative. Russell vs. Wilt. Magic vs. Bird. The search for The Next Jordan or The Next Kobe or The Next LeBron.
The Current LeBron is still active in his own portion of the GOAT conversation, presumably by virtue of his status as producer on Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse. But the newest TV series from James’ SpringHill company is more likely to evoke comparisons than any direct declarations of greatness. My notes on Disney+’s eight-episode The Crossover are scattered with references to other shows that the family basketball drama brought to mind.
Cast: Derek Luke, Sabrina Revelle, Jalyn Hall, Amir O'Neil, Deja Monique Cruz, Trevor Raine Bush, Skyla I'Lece, Daveed Diggs
Creators: Kwame Alexander and Damani Johnson, from Alexander's novel
It doesn’t quite achieve the lyrical poetry of OWN’s David Makes Man or the earnest adolescent sincerity of Freevee’s High School or the proficiently executed basketball rush of Apple TV+’s Swagger or the enticing time-jumping mystery of The WB’s Jack & Bobby. But in even conjuring up those connections, the adaptation of Kwame Alexander’s novel-in-verse at least shows wide-ranging ambition that goes beyond lots of shows targeting a comparably young demographic.
The Crossover generates some satisfying emotional beats, blends its coming-of-age and adult storylines well and, as derivative as some of its individual pieces may feel, its overall voice is likably distinctive.
Adapted for TV by Alexander and Damani Johnson, The Crossover is the story of twin brothers Josh (Jalyn Hall) and J.B. (Amir O’Neil) Bell. The boys are the sons of former professional basketball standout Chuck (Derek Luke) and their middle school principal Crystal (Sabrina Revelle), so it’s fitting that as they near high school, they’re torn between athletic and academic aspirations. Josh has spent his young life charting a course for the NBA, without asking if that was J.B.’s dream. But just as J.B. may find his true passion in art, Josh’s real genius may be in his poetry, read in voiceover by Daveed Diggs.
As the Bell family deals with travails in the present day — citywide basketball tournaments, first loves, Chuck’s health problems, Crystal’s pressures in a new job — episodes are bookended by chapters from less than a decade in the future. By 2030 and 2031, one of the Bell boys has become a star for the Lakers, one of several moments of future triumph counterbalanced by ominous hints of future tragedy. Which Bell will be the hoops sensation? What sadness awaits? What joy? If you thought my Jack & Bobby comparison was arbitrary, it wasn’t!
The future stuff points to several moody elements that may be too mature for the youngest viewers, but it also sometimes feels like a forced effort to impose serialized mystery onto a show that really doesn’t require the genre embellishment.
It’s not as if a seven-year jump forward opens the door for any speculative detailing. So if you’re an NBA nerd thinking, “Geez, the NBA just reached a new collective bargaining agreement, with some alterations to the game and that agreement will run until roughly 2030,” then let’s just say you may be taking The Crossover too seriously. Just concentrate on the main story without focusing on the slight misdirects at the top and bottom of the episodes, which run a blissfully brisk 30-ish minutes apiece.
The Crossover doesn’t always know how to translate the unique style of Alexander’s novel, but even when the poetry doesn’t make it to the screen, what’s consistently evident is the writer’s love for language. Josh is a vocabulary nerd and the show’s directors, including George Tillman Jr. and Psych veteran James Roday Rodriguez, use his florid verbiage as an opportunity for both education and visual flourishes that may be contagious for some young viewers.
The series’ love for Afrocentric culture should, ideally, be contagious as well. For all of the basketball references, The Crossover is every bit as invested in celebrating the likes of Langston Hughes (whose name is on the boys’ school), Miles Davis and Zora Neale Hurston. While episodes are often built around Big Game montages, I was much more engaged by a Harlem Renaissance-themed school dance and a roller-skating celebration driven by the show’s terrific wall-to-wall soundtrack.
That Black joy is as much a part of the show’s tapestry as basketball joy is a good thing, since The Crossover is never really convincing when it’s trying to depict the sports action. Josh makes a joke about being undersized, at least acknowledging that necessary suspension of disbelief, but no amount of strategic editing or immersive photography was able to make me believe that anybody would think of these two kids as potential high school basketball players, much less future top NBA draft picks.
It isn’t just Swagger — produced by Kevin Durant, who wins this showdown with LeBron — that delivers the basketball goods more consistently. Disney+’s short-lived Big Shot managed its athletic limitations better as well.
There’s no harm if Hall and O’Neil were cast more for acting than basketball. They’re both solid screen presences — O’Neil helping ground his character’s budding romance with Skyla I’Lece’s Alexis and Bell presaging the confidence that drives Diggs’ narration. Luke and Revelle make sure that the grown-up side of the storyline never feels perfunctory, as is so often the case in teen-centric shows, and their chemistry is real and mature. Couple goals, as it were, albeit not without some secrets and disagreements that drive the drama in the second half of the season.
The young ensemble features fine work from I’Lece and Deja Monique Cruz, with Phylicia Rashad making a welcome guest appearance as Chuck’s mother, who has opinions on the boys’ upbringing and on the proper seasoning of her daughter-in-law’s cooking.
Rashad’s presence, of course, only brings up more David Makes Man comparisons — watch this underrated gem on HBO Max — but her welcome gravitas is part of why The Crossover has clear room to expand and improve as it advances beyond the events of the first season.
I’d love to see the show grow more confident with its basketball scenes, make much better use of its New Orleans settings and perhaps find more visual equivalents for Josh’s poetry. That may not be enough to make The Crossover the GOAT of anything, but it would make it easier to enjoy the show for its own ample pleasures and not primarily for making viewers think of somewhat better shows.
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