How All American explores the experiences of Black youth in America
All American is scoring on and off the field.
For two seasons, the football drama has been telling stories about a myriad of Black experiences. Ahead of the necessary conversation about representation in Hollywood last year, the CW darling has been covering a lot of ground while telling the story of teen athlete Spencer James' (Daniel Ezra) dreams of playing in the NFL. While balancing the joy and stark realities of being Black in America, the drama has been doing the inclusive storytelling that many hope to see more of.
Based on the story of NFL player Spencer Paysinger, All American follows a young athlete straddling two worlds. "Yes, it is also a football show, but it's truthfully a show about the Black youth experience in America, and [Spencer] just happens to be a football player," showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll explains to EW. While he's from Crenshaw, Calif., Spencer goes to a Beverly Hills high school for a better shot at going pro. All American is not a show about someone who leaves their home behind to secure their future — he maintains his roots in both places, allowing the show to tell a wide variety of stories.
On a personal level, All American is a dream for Carroll. While the showrunner is able to bring her lived experience to the screen, the series has also resonated with her sons, the oldest of whom is a young athlete. "For him to be able to see his world represented on screen, and not in a passive way, but as the hero of the story," Carroll shares, "the effects of that are priceless."
When it premiered in 2018, All American was very different from the CW's other shows. The football drama is more similar to 90210 and Gossip Girl — and even then, only just in its high school setting — than the superhero and supernatural fare currently on the network. Carroll was not surprised that it took some time for people to find the drama, but she was also confident that the audience was out there. "My son is part of that audience, his friends are part of that audience, I'm part of that audience," she explains. "The me that grew up on the original Beverly Hills, 90210, and One Tree Hill and Dawson's Creek — we were starved for a show like that with people that look like us."
The Netflix factor was a massive help to All American. The first season debuted on the streamer shortly after its finale in March 2019, allowing even more people to find it. As a result of the increased exposure, many viewers tuned into the CW for the show's second season instead of waiting for it to also hit Netflix, according to Carroll. (There's been a gradual build from streaming platforms and the CW app, in addition to the show's traditional weekly broadcasts.)
In telling stories of the Black youth experience in America, All American balances the good and the bad. "It's the Black boy joy and then the slap back to reality when they have a run-in with a police officer," Carroll explains. "Or having a run-in with someone who just sees them as something to be fearful of as opposed to a whole fully-realized human being." The result is tackling the reality of the Black youth experience authentically and fully.
The in-depth approach to its storytelling becomes clear early in its run. During the third episode of season 1 "i," the first episode written by a then-co-executive producer Carroll, police pull over Spencer and his Beverly Hills friend Jordan Baker (Michael Evans Behling), who's driving and gets a reality check when he talks back to the officer. Spencer watches his new teammate learn that his privilege would not protect him. When the teens get back to the Baker household, viewers see Spencer ask Jordan's dad Billy (Taye Diggs) why he never had "the talk" with his son, and Billy admits he thought his success would keep them safe. "Being able to go home and really sit with the trauma and sit with a real conversation that families have to have, that my husband and I have to have with our sons, being allowed to do that on TV was unbelievable," Carroll recalls.
"We get to talk about the spectrum of Black experiences as opposed to just one particular Black experience," Carroll says. For instance, Layla Keating (Greta Onieogou) was at the center of a substantial mental-health story line. It wasn't a "one-episode PSA of teen struggle," but an season-long arc where she slowly unraveled, showing what the signs look like, the impact it has on loved ones, and then, ultimately, her choice to enter a mental health rehabilitation center. Carroll says in her TV-watching experience, many stories about mental health featuring Black characters don't live beyond an episode, or it's used to give a character some edge. (This Is Us and She's Gotta Have It join All American as a few shows telling more expansive arcs). "Our community has such a love-hate relationship with mental illness, and therapy, and what all of that means. I wanted to personalize it for everyone," Carroll says. "If that means we saved the kid's life somewhere along the way, or we helped a parent understand what was going on with their teen along the way, then we did our job."
With events like the cotillion that Olivia Baker (Samantha Logan) attends in season 2, All American brings the joy of the Black youth experience to life. Viewers get to watch Olivia's journey with social justice through her podcast and joining the SoLa Muse organization, hard work that is celebrated during a cotillion and a memorable dance sequence featuring many of the show's characters. Black cotillion is a real thing, something not shown on TV and an event that even people working on the episode didn't know existed. "It's also such a beautiful celebration of our youth," Carroll explains, "I wanted to show that it's more than a party." The event was fun but doubled as a reminder of Olivia's hard work, and by extension, celebrated those who participate in debutante balls.
All American will keep all the trappings of senior year of high school and teenage life in its new season, maintaining its balance of fun and hard realities. "We feel a responsibility to portray the joy and the resilience," Carroll explains. "It's important to us that they get to still be kids on the show even with everything going on." Season 2 ended with everyone separating for summer vacation, and the show will return with a "summer secrets" arc in its first half, secrets that will have fallout for seasons to come.
One thing viewers should not expect to see in season 3 is the pandemic. Even though the show has often tackled timely issues — Nipsey Hustle's murder and changes within the athletic world, for example — All American will forgo anything related to COVID-19 to keep in line with the story of Paysinger's life and the fact that Spencer is entering his senior year. The new season will examine what seniors put themselves through when they are trying to go to a Division 1 school with eyes on a career in the NFL. The pressure, high stakes, and competition are all made potentially more complicated by Spencer's previous shoulder injury, as viewers saw in the closing moments of the season 2 finale. To ensure safety during filming, a bubble was formed, like the NBA did for its season, and the football game scenes will be shot in two batches. The first half has already been shot, with the second half planned for this spring.
While the pandemic won't be part of the new season, another major real-life event of 2020 will. Breanna Taylor and George Floyd's tragic deaths resulted in an international response last year, but in February — even before all of the social unrest and Black Lives Matter protests — writers pitched an arc involving Black people's experiences with police. Carroll teases that it will "personally relate" to the characters, including District Attorney Laura Baker (Monet Mazur) and Olivia. "We're still reliving all of these things we wish as a society [our] kids weren't still experiencing," Carroll says. "So much of that was already in the fabric of our show."
Floyd's death by police was a catalyst for conversations about change in many areas, even outside of criminal justice reform. It extended to Hollywood, where, in the months that followed, there's been a focus on the lack of representation across film and television, with many sharing support for more inclusive storytelling. Carroll is hopeful that this becomes more than a moment and says she's excited to see what the next few years deliver. "My hope is we're giving storytellers who are telling authentic stories a real shot and not replacing the race of characters, but really deeply diving into better representation across the board."
And that push for inclusivity extends beyond the Black community, according to the All American showrunner. Indigenous writers and actors, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities also need better representation. "The onus is on all of us, especially those of us that are in positions of power, to continue to use our power and our privilege to make sure that needle keeps moving forward," Carroll adds. "I need to be making sure that I'm using my position to create additional openings for storytellers like me across the board."
Season 3 of All American premieres Monday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
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