“All American” may be based on the life of former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger, but the drama in the show extends well beyond what happens on the field.
Show creator April Blair previously told Variety that the CW drama would be diving into issues of race, class and sexuality for the series about a high school football player torn between his hometown of South Central, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, the new neighborhood and school to which he gets recruited. Blair exited the series just over a week before its scheduled series premiere, leaving the showrunner title to former co-executive producer Nkechi Okoro Carroll. With Carroll now at the helm, the show will still be heading down that road, as she tells Variety she does not plan to make any sweeping changes in the first season from the “shared vision” on which the writers’ room collaborated months ago.
“Yes we’re entertaining, yes there’s football, yes they’re teens living teen lives, but they’re also teens dealing with real-life issues the way teenagers do nowadays,” Carroll tells Variety. “I’m a parent and I hear the stories my sons come home with, and my husband’s a teacher in a high school and I hear the stories he comes home with, and our teens are dealing with a lot — more so than I feel like I was dealing with in high school. So we want to make sure we’re truthful.”
Here, Carroll talks with Variety about her new gig, including what attracted her to the show in the first place, what challenges come with her new title, and the message she wants the show to project.
What first attracted you to “All American”?
I had signed an overall deal with Warner Bros. and one of the first shows I met on was “All American” because I just loved the script so much — and I’m semi-obsessed with Greg Berlanti, so it seemed like the perfect match! I watched the pilot was completely blown away by the cast and the show and the potential of where they were going, so I joined the staff pretty much immediately, and from day one of the show starting post the pilot, I was part of the staff and part of the writers’ room.
Was there a particular character in the pilot you related to and for whom you specifically wanted to write?
I really relate to Karimah Westbrook, who plays Grace James, Spencer’s mom. I’m raising two black boys in America, so I’m like, “It’s me!” I think she plays that role so beautifully and so nuanced with just everything that’s involved with raising two sons and wanting what’s best for them even if it’s going to break your heart to do. And then Spencer, our lead character, even though I’m not a football player, I 100% relate to having a dream and having a gift and it feeling like when you’re a teen that’s the craziest dream ever that one day you’re going to be a Hollywood writer or one day you’re going to play in the NFL. But if you put in the work and you navigate this crazy world we live in, it’s achievable. I relate to telling this origin story because growing up as a young Nigerian girl, I was saying, “I want to be a writer” and my parents were like, “That’s funny.” … And there’s so much in Spencer’s character and the situation he navigates and the high stakes of high school — I still remember when I was in high school everything felt like it was life or death emotionally, so I still relate to that for these characters [too].
How are you balancing carrying out plans that may have been pitched to the network before you got promoted with still imparting your own ideas and vision?
It’s kind of been a seamless transition. It’s the same creative process and the same writers, and we just kept the ball moving. We were all involved with shaping the first season, together — myself, Greg, April and the other writers in the room — and so we’re all on the same page and moving forward with telling their stories. We set out with a pretty solid blueprint for the season, and obviously there have been some changes along the way as actors flourish and we want to go in that direction [because] their chemistry is great, and we adjust, as we would on any show. … It’s a shared vision. We all worked very collaboratively at the beginning of the season to arc out where we wanted this show to go, not just in Season 1 but in series. I was very blessed to be a part of that process from the minute I joined the show. … So as of right now there has been no huge departure from that.
What is the biggest challenge in your new role?
I’m definitely in a lot more meetings, that’s for sure. But it’s been a really great transition. Everyone here has been supremely helpful, and our creative team has remained the same, and the writers are doing an amazing job. Other than my phone ringing a little bit more than it used to, it’s been pretty much the same.
Are your new showrunner duties at “All American” affecting the status of the ABC series you are also developing?
As of right now, I am a semi-workaholic [though] my husband would probably say “not semi.” So I am still working on the pilot and developing with ABC, and so far have been able to juggle both.
Spencer is an entry point to two very distinct worlds in the “All American” pilot. How will the show expand into more of an ensemble going forward?
We’re really doing an exploration of identity on the show…not just for Spencer, but also his arrival forces us to hold up a mirror to some of the other characters and forces them to dig deeper in terms of their identity and how they see themselves. We don’t just keep the worlds separate, we do start to have characters go back and forth as the series goes along, and [we see] how they’re changed and shaped and altered based on what they’re experiencing through Spencer’s two worlds. … We’ve got such a great cast, we really do, and they all sort of feed amazingly off each other and elevate each other… especially the parents on the show, as well, with Taye [Diggs] and Monet [Mazur] and Karimah and you’ll see us telling stories with them an really hitting home what it means to parent these teenagers in what feel like very high stakes — and are very high stakes. … Of course the first few episodes do center on Spencer, but it is an ensemble cast and you’ll see as the season goes along, we branch out into all of our characters’ lives and expand the stories around them in ways that hopefully people aren’t expecting and are very entertained by.
What is the balance you want to strike with the more serious topics the show will explore?
One of the things that really attracted me to the show, and one of the things I think we continue to do, is it is grounded because it is inspired by Spencer’s life. We don’t want anything we do to suddenly feel like a departure from that. So even when we deal with quote-unquote teen issues, we’re making sure we’re grounded in truth and reality and authenticity so that it doesn’t feel like a sudden departure from our show when we’re dealing with one socially conscious issue and then another and then a love triangle.
What kind of personal responsibility do you feel in telling those kind of socially conscious stories?
As a writer in general I always feel a responsibility to put truth out there. I watched an insane amount of TV growing up — it’s part of why I wanted to be a TV writer so bad. I grew up in West Africa and a lot what shaped the way I viewed America was the TV shows I saw. And so for me as a writer, it’s always very important that there’s a level — a baseline — of authenticity in the shows we’re doing. … We’re a show with great aspirational qualities because Spencer’s life is so inspirational and something a lot of people aspire to, and that’s always going to be the underbelly of our show. But absolutely, you can’t tell these kinds of stories in a true, authentic way unless you’re delving into some of these issues. While we’re entertaining America if we can open their eyes a little bit to all of their preconceived notions on both sides of what Beverly Hills is, of what Crenshaw is — if we can turn that on its head and give this authentic portrayal and make people say, “Huh, I didn’t know that,” then that makes me happy, makes me feel like we’re doing our job.
“All American” premieres Oct. 10 on the CW.