A teenage soap opera with sports, the CW's "All American" is a sort of "Friday Night Lights" meets "Beverly Hills 90210" — you can practically hear the pitch – with a largely African American cast. The fact that it is "inspired by a true story," with much of it set (unusually for a broadcast network teen drama) in South L.A., does not make it any less a work of glossy fictional television. There are ways you can look at that as progress.
Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is a football phenom playing for the mythical South Crenshaw High and an excellent if occasionally distracted student – he draws football plays in class – with a supportive mother, Grace (Karimah Westbrook), and an impish little brother, Dillon (Jalyn Hall), living on the margins in a well-kept house. (Spencer: "No hot water again?" Grace: "Just behind on the gas bill, that's all – it's fine, I get paid next week." All: "Besides, a cold shower now and then is good for the soul.") His father is absent, having gone years before "to coach college ball in Nevada," never to have been heard from again. That is Spencer's Big Issue.
One night, post-game, Spencer is approached by Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), the coach of Beverly (as in Hills) High, who wants Spencer to come play for his struggling team, though recruiting is technically against the rules. (His own job is on the line, so he is keen to bend them.) That Spencer's game-winning touchdown coincided with a drive-by shooting just outside the stadium is a selling point. Plus, as a former pro himself — also from the neighborhood — with a career ended early by injury, Baker promises access to people who can provide Spencer access to the NFL. Also: a rich kid’s education.
To compress a lot of business and arrive at the premise, by the end of Wednesday’s busy pilot episode Spencer has taken the coach up on his offer and arrived, via three buses, at Beverly High; made friends with Olivia (Samantha Logan), who turns out to be the coach's daughter, the self-described "social pariah of Beverly High” (because she is sober after rehab); flirted with Layla (Greta Onieogou), described by Olivia as "Beverly High's resident sweetheart," first glimpsed in slow motion; made an enemy of Layla's boyfriend, Asher (Cody Christian); and tentatively connected with Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), the coach's son, who also happens to be the team starting quarterback and captain.
By the hour's end, in order to remain at Beverly, Spencer is also living uneasily – weekdays only – with the coach's family in their deluxe mansion. ("All this on a coach's salary?" says Spencer, asking the question for you. "My mom's an attorney," says Jordan, though as Laura Baker, Monet Mazur mostly just brings home the takeout sushi; it is a severely underwritten part, but adults are secondary characters here.)
Modeled on the experiences of NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger (New York Giants, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers) and created by April Blair ("Jane By Design"), with Nkechi Okoro Carroll as current showrunner, the show wastes no time in setting up the rivalries, feuds and friendships, which it does not hesitate to underline with hard-to-miss exchanges of significant looks. Young men fling fistfuls of testosterone at one another.
There are destabilizing secrets waiting their turn to be revealed; relationships will break apart, but in the way of episodic television, also easily repaired (only to break again, in order to be mended once more), just as lessons learned may need to be learned again. (Of the three episodes available to review, none comes without its moment of shared self-insight.) There are lectures, there are apologies.
Executive producer Greg Berlanti is responsible for much of what you see on the CW, including the Archie rethink "Riverdale," and there is something of an Archie dynamic built into the character relationships here. (Who would have guessed that one little comic would provide the template for so much American popular art?) If it's not exactly a one-to-one correspondence, it is not hard to identify an Archie, a Betty, a Veronica, a Reggie, a Moose (Hunter Clowdus as J.J.) and a Jughead.
But what it recalls most closely are Depression-era Warner Bros. films in which someone from the tenements, perhaps played by James Cagney, ascends by talent or will to mix with the upper crust, and in the bargain must learn humility. (Spencer: "I came here to score touchdowns." Baker: "You came here to play football, as a team.")
Spencer has a foot in two worlds, neither of which he feels completely comfortable in, an interloper among the swells, a traitor back home. Race is also sometimes an issue; the Baker kids are biracial and Layla is black, though protected by privilege — though Jordan will eventually face "the ugly side of being a black man in America."
The players are all very pretty, the better for the target demographic to dream upon, and there are swimming pools and oceanside workouts to make that crystal clear. But for the moment, despite the ample drama in which they're involved, most represent only a strategic position in the narrative flow chart, placeholders for the better developed characters that might come, eventually.
One exception is Bre-Z, who is interesting out of the box as Coop, Spencer's not completely out gay best friend – she's the Jughead – wise except when it comes to herself, who pushes Spencer to move on up to the north side, even as she depends on his support and protection: "You cannot save the world, Spencer; you got to save yourself."