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'All American' and The CW Bring Football Drama Back to TV
October 10, 2018  | By David Hinckley

All American is the best prime-time high school football drama since Friday Night Lights.

Okay, there isn’t a lot of competition there. But you wouldn’t put a show in the same sentence as FNL if it didn’t have some game.  

All American, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on The CW, is based on the life of Spencer Paysinger, who made it from South Central L.A. to the NFL partly because he played his high school ball at Beverly Hills High School.

That gives us both the “kid who rises above his circumstances” story and the “fish out of water” story. Add a cascade of standard high school dramas, and you’ve got a solid teen story, moderate-to-heavy on the soap.

Daniel Ezra (top) plays Spencer James, who lives with his brother and his single mother, Grace, in a small place in South Central. Grace (Karimah Westbrook) struggles to pay the bills and wants a better life for her boys, who, so far, have avoided gangs, drugs and other traps.

Spencer is an A student and a terrific football player who also has a will of his own. His play at South Crenshaw High attracts the attention of Billy Baker (Taye Diggs, left), coach of Beverly Hills High.

Billy recruits Spencer, partly because he thinks he can help the kid and partly because he needs to win some games fast or get fired. Recruiting isn’t exactly legal, so Spencer has to move in with the coach to show everyone that he’s – wink wink – really a Beverly Hills resident.

Viewers will recognize all of the dramas Spencer soon encounters in this alien world, and naturally, the writers dive right into mix-and-match.

One of his teammates, Asher (Cody Christian), resents this outsider coming to the team and starts working to sabotage him.

It doesn’t improve Asher’s mood when 1) the initial sabotage fails, and 2) Spencer develops a fondness for Layla (Greta Onieogou), the richest girl in a very rich class and also Asher’s squeeze.

In keeping with TV’s welcome move to give female characters more dimension, Layla has a shadowy side of her own. She’s not overtly a mean girl, but we should not get too overconfident around her. Neither should Spencer.  

The coach’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), who is also the team quarterback, has a complicated relationship with his father. And almost everyone else. The coach’s daughter Olivia (Samantha Logan) has become a Beverly Hills outcast, even though her family has economic parity. When Spencer moves into the Baker household, these issues all feed off each other and roll into bigger issues.

Given the roots of the show, that it’s an inspirational story, we’re never too worried that something dire will happen to Spencer.

Still, there’s plenty of room for tension along the way, and most of that tension revolves around the high school part. Like Friday Night Lights, All American is about more than football.

All American is not, however, a documentary. It doesn’t try to dissect the relationship between a gifted black athlete and the world those gifts can drop him into. It doesn’t probe the whole troubling issue of recruiting young athletes. It more often just acknowledges that it happens, and focuses on how it affects the lives of these characters.  

All American sees the story more from the perspective of Spencer than those who want to benefit from Spencer’s skills. It cares less about the obnoxious Beverly Hills football team boosters than about the impact of Spencer’s move on his relationship with his friends from back in the neighborhood, like Coop (Bre-Z).

The CW has, in many ways, the most focused mission of any broadcast network: dramas for teenagers and young adults. All American may hold few surprises, but on that larger goal, it scores.

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