The CW has made a name for itself in recent years as the home for Supernatural, Riverdale, and all things Arrowverse, but in between all those monster hunters, comic book teens, and unitard-clad superheroes, a wholly different kind of show has made itself at home. All American is a monster-free contemporary football drama about a kid from South Crenshaw who moves in with his coach’s family in Beverly Hills in order to become Beverly’s big star, based on the real-life story of professional American football player, Spencer Paysinger.
Starring Daniel Ezra as Paysinger’s fictional alter ego, Spencer James, and Taye Diggs as Billy Baker, the Beverly Hills High coach who recruits him, All American is equal parts sports drama, teen soap, and social awareness vehicle. As a CW show, it approaches each of these elements with a kind of straightforward heavy-handedness that, in the age of shows like Dear White People, On My Block, and David Makes Man, might (at least, formally) feel a little old-fashioned, but don’t let that turn you off—as Netflix’s Top 10 has proven out every time new episodes have been made available to binge, straightforward storytelling can be a balm in complex times, and All American wears old-fashioned well.
To that end, in the event you haven’t yet gone all-in on All American, I’ve put together six reasons you should add it to your Netflix queue—preferably in time for the Season 3 kickoff on January 18th.
Look—football (the concussive kind) might reign supreme as America’s favorite sport-as-entertainment, but that doesn’t make it a universal draw. With respect to [checks notes] both clear eyes and full hearts, not even the critically beloved melodrama of Friday Night Lights was compelling enough* to get me over the hump of deeply, deeply not caring about football.
And yet, I have no such trouble with All American. The football element is important, sure—key, even! But the game’s real value lies almost entirely in how integral it is to Spencer’s and Billy’s (and Jordan’s and Asher’s and Chris’s and Darnell’s and Corey’s) identities, and how large it looms in the community imaginations of both Crenshaw and Beverly Hills. Football in All American is family. It’s self. It’s opportunity. Everything beyond that—the endless cycle of scrimmages, games, and championships the writers spend each season riffing on; the cultural iconography legible at a hundred yards (football pun!); the opportunity to pack dozens of sweaty, fit twentysomething teens into shot after shot (after shot… after shot…)—it’s purely aesthetic. And if I can enjoy American football through that lens, so can you.
*I’m SORRY. I’ve tried! Please don’t take away my Teen TV cred.
With the dual caveat that All American is 1) explicitly and unapologetically a story about Los Angeles, and 2) focused on stories about characters at the extreme ends of that city’s class spectrum, it’s nevertheless also true that its sprawling ensemble centers more than a dozen Black characters, which by necessity means that it’s showcasing a whole constellation of Black stories.
It’s not just the differences between the Bakers’ tony life in Beverly Hills and the James’ shabbier one in Crenshaw the show is interested in exploring, however, nor even the differences between Billy as the Crenshaw star who Made It Out and Spencer as the Crenshaw star who’s On His Way. It’s how Spencer and his best friend Coop (Bre-Z) differ in their willingness/ability to tangle with Crenshaw’s gang life, and how Coop and her girlfriend Patience (Chelsea Tavares) differ in their comfort with/ability to come out to their families. It’s how Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and Liv (Samantha Logan) struggle to overcome the bad habits their lives of privilege have let them develop (him, enough girls to result in at least one pregnancy scare; her, dual substance abuse and anxiety problems), while also struggling to better understand how their biracial identities fit into different conversations about being Black in America right now. It’s Liv getting an award for her social justice podcast at the fancy SoLa Muse cotillion, and Spencer’s nurse putting her foot down when he’s written off as a thug after getting shot in a drive-by, and Kia (Asjha Cooper) and Darnell (Da’Vinchi) organizing a sit-in to protest South Crenshaw High being turned into a magnet school that kids in the community would have to enter a lottery to even get into.
At the same time, All American is just as interested in exploring how Spencer, Dillon (Jalyn Hall), and Darnell work through the anger and grief and love they feel for a father figure they’re forced to share, as well as a brotherhood they grow to depend on, and in examining how the loneliness and depression Layla (Greta Onieogou) hides from her friends can metastasize behind the facade of wealth. Not to mention appreciating how Spencer’s mom (Karimah Westbrook) manages not just to hold her family together, alone, while trying not to lose who she is as a person, but also making space for Coop and Darnell when they need safe places to land.
The fact is, All American is getting to do with its majority Black cast what an ocean of majority white dramas have done for decades: Let its characters exist as individuals, rather than tokens or stereotypes. Happily, it’s not the only majority Black drama out there doing this right now—nor is it even the only one on the CW, at least until Black Lightning wraps at the end of its upcoming season. But that’s all the more reason to tune in: All American is All American. To all of our benefit, it doesn’t have to be anything more than that.
That last point is great news, because what it turns out All American wants to be is a hot mess. Not in the way the story’s told—series creator April Blair and her large and diverse team of writers and directors have a firm grip on the webs they’re spinning, and how each narrative element connects to the rest. See again: Straightforward. See: Old-fashioned. There’s no fat here; it’s all just lean, clean story.
It’s just that, that clean story, by design, is messy. I mean, it starts off with Spencer moving across town to live with the Bakers, whose daughter, Liv, develops a crush on him at the same time as he develops a crush on her best friend, Layla, who at the time is dating the team’s star receiver, Asher (Cody Christian)—which is extra awkward, as that’s also Spencer’s position. But don’t worry, by the time the second season is wrapping up, Spencer and Layla have started (and stopped, and almost re-started) dating, Liv’s with Asher, and both Spencer and Asher have lost their position as receiver due, depending on where they are in the timeline, to A) choice, B) getting shot, C) going on steroids, or D) getting suspended. Coach Baker (Diggs), meanwhile, has a secret past with Spencer’s mom, Grace, which Coach’s superstar attorney wife, Laura (Monet Mazur), learns about sooner rather than later—and an even more secret past with Spencer’s dad, Corey (Chad L. Coleman), who it turns out was raising a secret adoptive son in Nevada all those years he ignored his own sons back in Crenshaw. And that’s before we even get started with Coop, Patience, and everything going on with the gangs back in Crenshaw.
Let’s just say, the relationships on this show are the stuff conspiracy board memes are made of. If you like big, soapy teen dramas, All American is a Platonic ideal.
For a show whose majority of principal characters spend a significant portion of their waking hours violently tackling one another over possession of a pointy brown ball, All American features a veritable pantheon of emotionally evolved dudes. This list starts with Spencer James himself, who quickly develops of reputation as a guy whose superpower is reading his friends’ most deeply buried thoughts and feelings. But it extends to include Billy, whose coaching style is rooted in empathy and personal growth; Jordan, whose heart is so wide open he regularly volunteers as family mediator, for his own family and others; Darnell, who gives Spencer a way back into a relationship with his absentee dad; and Dillon, who really steps up as little brother in Season 3 to give Spencer some much needed insight into how to make complex, long-distant sibling dynamics work. Heck, it even extends to JJ (Hunter Clowdus), Beverly’s resident bleach blonde Ken doll, who by tropey rights could be written as the Eagles’ bro-ily racist team villain, but who instead turns out to be a ball of love and easygoing allyship, not to mention the show’s most dependable comic relief.
This isn’t to say there aren’t hard, emotionally stunted men on All American—there absolutely are, not just on the field and in the streets, but also in both Beverly’s and Crenshaw’s various halls of power. But these familiarly bad and incurious men are the obvious exception to the rule, showing up more to highlight how hollow masculinity without love and introspection is than they do for any other reason. And, like, okay—it’s a fantasy, that such a large plurality of dudes would be able to be that emotionally available to one another, let alone to the women in their lives, but honestly? Who cares. More ambitious, football-themed models to what masculinity could be, please! All American and Ted Lasso: I thank you for your service.
Football is the headliner of the series, sure, but for every feat of athletic excellence Spencer, Asher, Billy, Jordan, or Darnell bring to the table, All American makes room for Coop and Patience to get their flowers as rising musical talents, or Layla to get hers as an up-and-coming producer, or Liv to be celebrated as a budding social justice leader.
Now, obviously it’s ridiculous to believe that a social bubble as small as Spencer’s could produce so many future stars, but to my own point I will argue that A) it’s a television show, and B) they’re in LA, where who you know is as important as any amount of potential you might have. And anyway, none of that is the point. The point, which All American finds a new way to drive home every week, is that the mere audacity of having a dream, and pursuing it with rigor and passion, is both meaningful and worthwhile. I mean, it’s no Dickinson, sure, but I’ll take that message from any show willing to give it.
Yes, I’m recycling the final point from my Legacies list, but that’s only because it’s too important to gloss over: All American, like Legacies, and like every other series on The CW, knows it’s a television show. It can’t play the Monster-of-the-Week game, but between its various scrimmages, dances, galas, college visits, block parties, pajama parties, and championship games, it has more than enough built-in structure to make sure its episodes nevertheless feel like true episodes (so old-fashioned!), and not like chapters in a 32-hour+ movie.
More important that, though, is the fact that, while it takes its characters and their lives seriously—and yes, this includes the declaration that Black Lives Matter, which features front and center in Season 3’s premiere, right alongside Liv summarizing the summer that passed between Seasons 2 and 3 as “America showing its racist ass”—it doesn’t pretend like it’s doing anything more, at least artistically, than being a straightforward, soapy drama. Just, you know, with football. And right now, I think we could all use a straightforward, soapy drama—for it to be one that also believes Black Lives Matter, all the better.
The first two seasons of All American are streaming on Netflix. Season 3 premieres Monday, January 18 at 8pm on The CW.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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