All American Review: The RiverdaleFNL Mash-Up You Didn't Know You Need

Photo: Courtesy of the CW.
Hot teens. Uncomfortable love triangles. Some genuinely shocking twists. The CW. Are we talking about Riverdale? Well, almost. Right now, we’re chatting about the Archie Comics adaptation's new Wednesday night network sibling, All American. The upcoming drama, which shares a producer with Riverdale in Greg Berlanti, follows Crenshaw teen Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) as he heads across town to Beverly Hills High School to play football and get a better education. Unsurprisingly — this is a CW show — young adult-flavored drama ensues.
While Riverdale fans won’t find the murder-y flair of Archie & Co. in All American, they will get their soapy fix. Because the series, premiering October 10, takes all the high school angst we’ve come to expect from Riverdale and adds the emotional, sporty heft of Friday Night Lights. All together, it’s a delightful combo.
When we first meet rising football star Spencer, he’s playing for the Crenshaw team and thriving. But everything changes when Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) approaches Spencer following a winning game and offers the on-the-rise teen a spot on the Beverly Hills team. Spencer — proud, family-dedicated Spencer — originally balks at the proposition to leave his beloved neighborhood behind for the lap of luxury. But, of course, we don’t get our fish out of water show if Spencer doesn’t head to Beverly Hills. So, of course, narrative forces conspire to get the working class athlete to the palatial BHHS (“They serve sushi on Friday,” Billy’s teen daughter Olivia expounds during a campus tour) .
Although it is interesting to watch the class tensions of All American unravel across the series’ first three episodes, which were all made available to critics, that’s not the true draw here. Rather, it’s the explosive emotional relationships that will likely keep viewers coming back. Empire alum Bre-Z quickly proves she’s the drama’s secret weapon as Coop, Spencer’s longtime best friend from Crenshaw. For a show about teens running around chasing a pigskin, Coop and Spencer’s scenes together, which usually revolve around questions of duty, family, and the future, pack an emotional wallop.
You’ll find that same Friday Night Lights-y thoughtfulness in any scene involving the previously mentioned Olivia Baker (13 Reasons Why newbie Samantha Logan), who is sure to become a fan-favorite. Olivia might have a complicated history no one should spoil, but All American avoids all the bad girl tropes a lesser series would quickly fall for. And, she gives the best soulful glances in a show filled with soulful glances.
Yet, out of all the strengths of this show, most fans will probably be lining up to ship some semblance of All American’s central sprawling love rhombus. The participants of the drama’s messy little love situation include Spencer, Olivia, Leila Faisal (Greta Onieogou), and local villain Asher (Cody Christian, Pretty Little Liars alum and Teen Wolf’s most captivating bad guy). Yes, Asher is the worst, so he doesn’t deserve BHHS “sweetheart” Leila. And, yes, Spencer and Leila do have great chemistry. But, Spencer also has great chemistry with the fascinating Olivia — and everyone loves Olivia. So, as is often asked about Riverdale, who should actually end up with whom?
That is a question to be hammered out across Twitter and Tumblr in the coming months, preferably with many, many GIFs.
The fact that these kinds of harmlessly thirsty questions lie ahead over a love rhombus with three members of color feels like a real moment of growth for the CW. While the network’s recent feminist dramedies (like Jane The Virgin and Dynasty) have become more inclusive, CW and WB high school-set series have been infamously very white for decades, particularly when it comes their casting of young men.
Because Spencer has the potential to be such a fun character, its likely fans' only complaint will be that All American has the habit of making its leading man too serious. Spencer feels everything. Spencer overthinks everything. Multiple people spend the second episode telling Spencer he can't fix everything for everyone who has ever stepped foot in Crenshaw. Although All American is all about beautiful teens at an impossibly wealthy high school, Spencer tends to forget that fact to spend more time glowering. A time will come where viewers will want to shake Spencer by his shoulders and yell, “This whole thing is a good thing!”
While it’s great that All American is actually thinking about Spencer’s background, his Eeyore-like attitude in the face of a fantastic opportunity is a bit of a downer. Especially for a series that also boasts so many sexy vistas, soaptastic antics, and a jaw-dropping pilot twist.
Thankfully, this young adult saga is still filled with fun, and not just because it turns fictional high school football into riveting high drama. After all, this is a show that tricked me into falling in love with it with a single shiny L.A. party scene and “Slide” by Calvin Harris, Frank Ocean, and Migos playing. If any new series deserves a spotlight in its metaphorical face, it’s All American.
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