Welcome to Beverly Hills, bitch!
That homage to Luke Ward’s iconic quote isn’t actually a part of “All American,” but don’t let its absence dissuade comparisons to Fox’s indelible nighttime soap. “All American” owes a debt to “The O.C.,” especially in its opening episode, when a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks gets an unexpected chance at a better life from a wealthy family. By the end of the pilot, filled with generous father figures (sans Sandy’s bushy eyebrows) and glamorous L.A. mansions (minus the “Mc”), you better believe audiences of a certain age will be crooning “California, here we cooooooooooome!”
And yet, April Blair’s new CW drama isn’t interested in squeezing in acknowledgements for adult fans still watching teen melodramas. It shouldn’t be. “All American” is building its own story for its own generation, and the first three episodes quickly illustrate just how badly modern viewers need it. What starts as a fun reminder of just how bankable rags-to-riches stories can be, results in a relevant original series that’s a whole helluva lot of fun — all on its own terms.
Inspired by ex-NFL player Spencer Paysinger, “All American” follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a talented football wide-out living in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. He’s the star of the squad, but he’s not challenged by his coach, team, or academics. Spencer is a smart kid looking to provide for his single mother and younger brother. Football seems like the ticket, but he’s not blind to the benefit of good grades. So when Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) shows up with a full ride to his elite private high school in Beverly Hills, Spencer can’t say no. (His mother, Grace, played by Karimah Westbrook, wouldn’t let him anyway.)
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There, he faces new challenges. Though there aren’t any drive-by shootings or threatening gang members, there are edgy cops fingering their sidearms and wealthy white kids who aren’t looking to give up their roster spot to a “homeboy.” In “The O.C.,” Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) got sneers from the uber-wealthy Newport crowd for being poor; here, Spencer James is ostracized for being poor and black — a crucial distinction handled well. Facing casual racism, overt racism, racial profiling, and more, all within his first few days living in the 90210 zip code, what Spencer goes through feels decidedly American in the nauseating context of our current culture. Maybe it’s because “America To Me” is airing right now on Starz, but these issues are what high schoolers face today, and they’re exactly what should be brought up in TV shows aimed at that age group.
Still, “All American” is far from a downer. Blending elevated emotions of every sort, it’s a prime example of melodrama done right. (High school stories might be best suited for the genre, as the setting helps justify rapid mood swings.) When the coach’s daughter, Olivia (Samantha Logan), calls sitting with Spencer at school lunch a “date,” you giggle and cringe along with her. When a bunch of rich boosters keep calling Spencer “boy,” you’re going to get riled up along with him. When Tiana “Coop” Cooper (Bre-Z) gets sucked into the protective comfort of a local gang, you feel her yearning for safety. Each beat evokes exactly what’s intended, be it somber reflection or giddy whoops.
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Bre-Z, Logan, and Ezra are all early stand-outs. They’re charming, they listen to each other, and they never lose the intended tone. Diggs isn’t exactly Peter Gallagher, but his father/coach character isn’t the steadfast voice of reason. (Nor has he hinted at a hidden penchant for musicals.) He’s carrying the series’ larger mystery, which could make or break things depending on how it’s handled. Meanwhile, his wife, Laura (Monet Mazur) is already rocking the rich-wife role as the family’s primary provider (hell yes to the working moms out there), but she needs more to do before reaching Kiki levels of greatness.
Football — did football come up yet? No? That’s because it doesn’t really matter. With a goofy PA announcer offering expository audio commentary of each game and some seriously questionable “athletes” on the field, the second coming of “Friday Night Lights” this is not. While more prominent than water polo, football is used to drive the narrative and illustrate literal wins and losses for the figurative ones already shown. (When Spencer pushes himself too hard off the field, guess what happens on it.) Still, having a big game every week keeps things moving, and “All American” establishes a hearty momentum it might be able to sustain. There are many overlapping storylines to choose from, plenty of able-bodied cast members to carry them, and a solid foundation to build from.
After all those many, many “O.C.” references (sorry, not sorry), “All American” is more of a next step in rags-to-riches TV shows than a reimagining of the trope’s best series. It’s inclusive in a way “The O.C.” never was, including a prominent gay storyline, and the male gaze driving so many bikini shots in Orange County is ousted in favor of the near-constant shirtless football bros of Beverly Hills (which I heard was the second choice title). There’s just a lot to like about these first three entries and very little to feel guilty about. If it can keep up the pace, Luke’s ghost could be greeting a lot of new fans. (Though let’s be honest: Odds are The CW’s Netflix deal means “All American” will really score once it’s streaming.)
“All American” premieres Wednesday, October 10 at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.