The CW’s ‘All American’ is the kind of teen drama that 2018 demands
The basic premise of The CW’s All American will certainly feel familiar. It’s a fish-out-of-water teen drama that follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a poor teenager who is plucked out of his rough south Los Angeles neighborhood and transplanted into the rich, white world of Beverly Hills, California. The most simplistic description is The O.C. blended with Friday Night Lights — inspired by professional football player Spencer Paysinger, the show uses football as the catalyst.
Spencer’s talent catches the eye of coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), who invites Spencer not only to play for Beverly Hills High’s football team, but also to live with Billy and his family. A rags-turned-sudden-riches story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the familiarity here actually works — and the series knows both when and how to rise above it.
It also helps that All American, which debuted on Oct. 10, has the luck of premiering during a truly dour broadcast fall season; it’s easily become this year’s best drama pilot. But even without grading on a curve, All American succeeds in being a neatly crafted teen drama with some necessary upgrades, leaning into the signifiers of the genre while introducing plot elements and narrative shifts that feel distinctly more 2018.
Predictably, a recurring conflict in All American finds Spencer trying to adjust to his new life, especially when surrounded by wealthy white peers who don’t always know what to make of him. The series explores classism in a way we rarely see in shows about rich teenagers, even if it may be a bit 101. Depictions of the financial gap aren’t exactly subtle — Spencer attends lavish parties thrown in Beverly Hills’ mansions, he finds out in his new classroom that he’s the only student without a laptop — but it does work better than expected. It’s best in the smaller moments, such as the Bakers’ surprise (and inability to hide their judgment) when they learn Spencer doesn’t own a blazer to wear to a “nice” event.
Some of the stronger scenes involve Spencer frequently returning to the comforts of his old neighborhood, where his mother (Karimah Westbrook) and younger brother (Jayln Hall) still live, providing a juxtaposition between their realistic financial struggles and Spencer’s new life. Spencer tries to find a way to keep one foot on each side of the tracks, resulting in conflicts from every direction.
His old team feels hurt and betrayed about Spencer leaving; his new team feels like Spencer isn’t totally committed to them. The show falters a bit when it comes to balancing the two worlds, but it helps that there are compelling characters throughout. A major standout is his best friend Coop, played by Empire’s Bre-Z — a butch lesbian who doesn’t hide her queerness (even if her mother seems to be in denial) and who gets storylines that aren’t only limited to her sexuality.
While some of All American feels like a throwback to earlier teen dramas, the series’ willingness to depict racism — both in explicit conversations between characters and in smaller micro-aggressions that pop up here and there — is a reminder that it’s aimed toward a newer generation and suits a time when people are more vocal when it comes to demanding diversity and intersectionality in media.
It would not only be unrealistic if All American didn’t engage with Spencer’s race, but it would also be a disservice to both the show and the character. During their first meeting, his new teammate Asher (Cody Christian) wastes no time in asking Spencer if he’s a Blood or a Crip. (Later, we meet Asher’s father and realize where Asher learned all that racism.) It becomes clear that Spencer will not only have to endure taunts about being poor but also taunts about being black — in a later episode, a racist meme is circulated around school. These moments ring true to the experience of being black in a majority-white environment, and especially the double-whammy of being both black and poor.
What’s also notable about All American is that it doesn’t overlook the combination of being black and rich, either, and knows that there’s no amount of money that can shield you from racism. In the third episode, when Spencer and Coach Baker’s quarterback son Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) are driving in Spencer’s Crenshaw neighborhood, they get pulled over by police. All American hones in on the stark contrast of their reactions: Spencer goes into immediate survival mode, keeping his hands in view and responding respectfully while urging Jordan to do the same. Jordan — who has financial privilege — is more indignant, questioning the cops and name-dropping his (white) mother, a lawyer.
The cops don’t see bank statements, but only two young black men, and soon both are cuffed on the ground. Later, during a conversation with Spencer, Coach Baker admits that he never explained to Jordan how to deal with certain realities — the “ugly side of being a black man in America” — and it’s clear Baker assumed that Jordan would be safe because of his affluence and his Beverly Hills zip code. It’s an interesting conversation, and it isn’t handled perfectly, but it’s important that it’s actually there. Race was so often overlooked in most of the ‘00s biggest teen dramas, so it’s refreshing to see that All American takes a careful and nuanced approach.
Lest All American sound like it’s a drag dependent on social issues or Very Special Episodes, I should mention that it’s also quite fun! The writers seem to love teen drama staples: Spencer immediately finds himself in a love triangle; the pilot ends with a dramatic, albeit predictable, twist about a big secret; there are ridiculous parties where teenagers play strip poker and skinny-dip in hot tubs; the teens treat their relationships with grave importance, snort Adderall with impunity and casually explain that they’re fresh out of rehab.
It’s all pretty addictive itself — it will likely find most of its viewers on streaming, in marathon form, whenever the full season hits Netflix — even when (or maybe especially when?) it relies too much on soapy silliness. If you love teen dramas, it’s easy to root for a show like All American, and commend it for trying its best to blend genre tropes with some much-needed social commentary.