Fittingly for a show about a star football player, the CW’s “All American” comes out of the gate with a degree of hustle that’s startling even by the standards of a network pilot. Within the first few minutes, we’ve learned that Spencer James (the appealing and effective Daniel Ezra) tends to win games through his power of perception. We’ve also learned that much of his life off the gridiron has consisted of forcibly shutting the world out, as when a drive-by shooting mars the end of a game for his predominantly black high school in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. And before we’ve learned too much more about Spencer’s life, we’re shown exactly how it’s about to change.
Well before episode’s end, the premise of super producer Greg Berlanti’s latest series is established: Recruited by another school’s coach, Spencer is now to be leading a bifurcated life, playing for the largely white Beverly Hills team (and living with the coach) while leaving his heart back in Crenshaw. It’s a canny formula, if one established with head-spinning swiftness. But as the first three episodes play out, it becomes clear that the show’s writers have ample plans for how to add interest to the concept, making “All American” a bright spot at the start of a moribund network-TV season.
Chief among the complicating factors is Taye Diggs’ performance as Billy Baker, the coach who convinces Spencer to switch schools. Diggs helps center a series that’s at times overstuffed, playing a character who falls short of being a “Friday Night Lights”-style inspirational figure. He’s a sounding board when Spencer admits to anger and exhaustion, but he seems separated from his experience too. That he’s at times naive about what Spencer is giving up by leaving his school and his community—focused as he is solely on what advantages are being gained through the transition—helps cast into relief just how seismic the change really is. And Baker and his family, a multiethnic clan living in an enclave apparently more concerned with social class than with race, have a sort of willful cluelessness about the lived experiences of many of their fellow Angelenos. An instance where Spencer and Baker’s son Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) get pulled over—and in which Jordan makes evident he’s never thought through what dealing with the police means to him as a young black man—is complex and rich in character detail.
Before then, though, both young men have a tendency to seem like less-than-fully-rounded characters; the show can lack the texture it boasts in its best moments. A rival to Spencer on the Beverly Hills football team behaves inconsistently from scene to scene, and a notional motivation for Baker, hinted at throughout the first three episodes, threatens to compromise a character who’s already plenty interesting on his own. It’s a soapy hook that isn’t needed. “All American” tends to have more ideas, and sharper ways of expressing them, in Crenshaw than in Beverly Hills — particularly a subplot about Spencer’s dearest friend from home, a butch young lesbian (“Empire” standout Bre-Z) whose religious mother can’t accept her daughter’s truth. But since so much of the action takes place in Beverly Hills, this is a bit of a stumbling block; the show needs to decide what about that milieu is worth our attention.
One possibility would be a focus on the more insidious ways in which Spencer, perceptive enough to detect social cues, is reminded he’s not where he belongs. Plenty of vitriol is spat in his direction, notable as a means to shorthand his outsider status — and his ability to endure cruelty with grace. More cleverly observed, though, is a scene in which Coach Baker’s family casually assumes Spencer owns a blazer and has a hard time hiding their dismay when they learn he doesn’t. Unflashy, keenly insightful beats like these lend subtlety and elegant pacing to the story of two cultures within a single city learning from each other. And they’re proof that “All American” is a rookie show with real promise.
Drama: The CW (three episodes reviewed); Wed., Oct. 10.
Cast: Daniel Ezra, Taye Diggs, Samantha Logan, Bre-Z, Greta Onieogou, Monet Mazur, Michael Evans Behling, Cody Christian, Karimah Westbrook, Jalyn Hall
Executive Producers (Pilot): Greg Berlanti, April Blair, Sarah Schechter