It’s been quite a few years since The CW put their faith in a teen drama featuring regular ‘ol human kids rather than supernatural, superpowered, or super-Gothic adolescents. The network’s last straightforward high school series, The Carrie Diaries, attempted to build on the legacy of Sex in the City with tales of a young Miss Bradshaw. Five years later, The CW is trying again with All American (Wednesday, 9 p.m.), a soapy football series that has its own pop culture touchstones to draw from — it’s part Friday Night Lights and part The O.C., with a little bit of The Blind Side thrown in for good measure.
All American’s protagonist is a superhero of a different sort: Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is a star high-school football player at South Crenshaw High. He’s a prodigy headed straight for the pros — if he can survive the gang violence plaguing his South L.A. neighborhood. Enter Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), who offers Spencer a spot on the team at Beverly Hills High — a place where he can get a quality education without having to dodge stray bullets. Through a series of just-go-with-it plot machinations, Spencer ends up moving in with Coach Baker and his family, including his teammate Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), Jordan’s sister Olivia (Samantha Logan), and their mom Laura (Monet Mazur). With that, Spencer’s life goes from Compton grit to California (here we cooooooome) dreaming, complete with sun-soaked backyard pool parties and football practice on the beach. (“Sandcastles and John Mayer sing-alongs,” scoffs Spencer, during one such outing.)
Though All American relies on some standard teen soap tropes — Spencer is immediately thrust into a love triangle between Olivia, a recovering addict who pines for him from afar, and Leila (Greta Onieogou), a poor-little-rich-girl type with a bully (Pretty Little Liars’ Cody Christian) for a boyfriend — the show also strives to deliver more ambitious storytelling. Spencer faces racism — both overt and of the dog-whistle variety — in his new surroundings. And Jordan, a privileged kid with a mixed-race background (his mother is white), feels threatened by Spencer, a black teen whose rough upbringing mirrors Billy’s. (In episode 3, Jordan and Spencer have a run-in with the police that artfully illustrates the discrepancies in their experiences as young men of color.) Meanwhile, Spencer’s best friend Coop (Empire’s Bre-Z) must fend off local gang-bangers while grappling with whether or not to come out as gay to her religious mother.
With Spencer’s life divided between Beverly Hills and the hood, All American can’t help but feel a little disjointed as well. Three episodes in, it’s the Crenshaw-based stories that are most compelling, from Spencer’s sweet relationship with his little brother (Jalyn Hall) to his ongoing friendship with Coop, who serves as both his confidante and his conscience. Of course, there are repeated hints about a shared history between Coach Billy and Spencer’s mom Grace (Karimah Westbrook), which will likely create a collision between our hero’s two worlds soon enough. Until then, All American is an interesting mix of the California-as-utopia teen drama — golden sunlight glinting off the Pacific, so many shirtless boys! — and a more nuanced exploration of the intersection between race and class. Bonus for the sports-impaired (like myself): You don’t need to understand anything about football to enjoy it. Grade: B