TV Review – All American
April Blair is a writer-producer who has worked on several primetime TV shows. In 2012, she had Jane By Design on ABC Family. She then had Hart of Dixie on CW and later had Reign on the CW in 2015. Those three TV shows had something in common. All three dealt with a character from one area, place or culture being transplanted into another. Hart of Dixie for example was about a New Yorker going to the Deep South of Alabama. Those three shows all centered on young, white women. Blair’s new program also deals with a transplant, but this time her protagonist is a young, black man. Using her transplant theme, which appears to be a favorite of hers, along with a focus on an African-American family, this show allows her to explore issues within the black community and within black families in a more concentrated way. Given also that her protagonist is a football player, this show also could be described as Friday Night Lights meets The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, except minus any humor.
Daniel Ezra stars as Spencer James, a linebacker from Crenshaw, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. It’s a predominantly black neighborhood. Crime and gang violence is more of an issue in Crenshaw. In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, what prompted the transplant is a fight with what’s assumed to be gang members. It’s the same here for Spencer. The stakes are a little higher because at one of Crenshaw’s football games, there’s a drive-by shooting where a kid dies. When Spencer is approached from the coach at Beverly High School in Beverly Hills, a whiter and wealthier neighborhood, the coach offers him a scholarship and a place to live. Spencer’s mom encourages him to go and he does.
The problem is that Spencer has a little brother named Dillon, played by Jalyn Hall. If Crenshaw is so dangerous, then why does Spencer’s mom not do anything about Dillon? For that matter, what about all of Spencer’s friends who don’t get this kind of opportunity? What are all the other kids of Crenshaw supposed to do? Yes, Crenshaw, like other places in southcentral Los Angeles, has problems like crime and gang violence. The solution can’t always be to abandon the neighborhood. Of course, if people want to move to a new place to start a new or better life, then they should. But the impression that narratives like this suggest is that places like Crenshaw are basically cesspools, not worthy of staying in, which isn’t altogether true.
Blair’s TV show is inspired by the real-life story of Spencer Paysinger who went on to play in the NFL. It’s similar to the Oscar-winning The Blind Side (2009), which was also based on the real-life story of a NFL player who was transplanted from a poor, black neighborhood into a wealthy white one. That film was criticized for its white savior narrative. This series doesn’t have the white savior aspect in that the person that takes in Spencer isn’t a white person.
Taye Diggs (Empire and Private Practice) co-stars as Billy Baker, the coach at Beverly High who recruits Spencer for that school’s football team. Billy also allows Spencer to stay at his house. Billy isn’t white but he brings Spencer into a mostly white neighborhood and culture, believing that is what will save Spencer. This is equally as problematic as the simple white savior issue. What also is problematic is what could be called the football-savior narrative or sports-savior narrative. Too often and in too many films, sports like football or basketball are seen as what will save young black kids from the bad black neighborhoods, and it’s rather dispiriting.
Nearly 20 years ago, the TV series Moesha was set in Crenshaw. Its depiction of a black family in that neighborhood might have been a little too optimistic, a type of Huxtables-like fantasy for West Coast blacks, but it too perhaps expressed a truth. Moesha did address issues of crime and poverty, but there was a truth in that it showed Crenshaw as not a cesspool. A lot of people in Crenshaw perhaps have pride in their community and don’t believe escaping it is the answer. Newer shows like HBO’s Insecure also try to shed some of that light and some of that pride.
Yes, this is a show about football and a young man who has a passion for it, so if it’s his passion, then it’s fine for him to pursue it. I would just say that more films and TV shows probably exist about black people pursuing sports than about black people pursuing academics solely. It’s not that films about black academics don’t exist. Akeelah and the Bee (2006) is a terrific example, but the dichotomy to which I’m referring was probably best debated in John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995).
Escape is probably the wrong word, but I have no problem with black people wanting to grow or evolve beyond where they started. I assume that Spencer’s goal is to make it to the NFL and make enough money to get his mom and brother out of Crenshaw. The possibility that he won’t make it to the NFL exists but so far there’s been no indication of what backup plan Spencer has. There really has been no indication of his academic life or alternative interests, if he were injured and couldn’t play. Friday Night Lights was more of an ensemble piece than this and it did explore the alternatives.
This show simply seems to want to deal with the social dynamics of this poor kid in a rich environment. It’s a fish-out-of-water kind of dynamic. Bre-Z (Empire) who plays Tiana Cooper is one of Spencer’s friends in Crenshaw. She gets pulled into some gang activity, but it’s through her that we possibly shatter some illusions about that gang activity and who the gang members are.
However, even with the gang members stuff, this show doesn’t have the same gritty nature of something like Friday Night Lights. There’s still mostly a glossy sheen to this series akin to something like Gossip Girl. In that, it’s more about teen, soap opera-style drama…the typical back-and-forth of who is going to have sex with whom. Spencer, who is eye-candy, is currently between two beautiful women who are potential love interests, including his coach’s daughter, Olivia Baker, played by Samantha Logan, and a teammate’s girlfriend, Leila Faisal, played by Greta Onieogou.
Meanwhile, the show juggles two other pieces of total eye-candy. There’s Michael Evans Behling who plays the coach’s son, Jordan Baker. Jordan becomes jealous of Spencer who is getting more attention from Billy. There’s also Cody Christian (Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars) who plays rival teammate, Asher. Asher is jealous too because his girlfriend, Leila, is showing more interest in Spencer than him. It might be because Asher cheated on her. Whether Leila knows that isn’t revealed in the first two episodes, but because it doesn’t really feel like the series cares that much about the ensemble, we probably won’t get much delving into the relationships of Asher.
Runnning Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CW.