Tonight The CW rolled out its latest offering to young adults — and older adults who can’t help but get hooked on shows like Jane the Virgin. All American is a new high school football drama set in Los Angeles and co-produced by Greg Berlanti, the same guy helming the network’s crown jewel, Riverdale. It is based on the life of recently retired NFL player, Spencer Paysinger. Thanks to this sports affiliation it’s impossible not to compare All American to Friday Night Lights, the much-beloved now-defunct drama that enjoyed a five season run from 2006 to 2011. Friday Night Lights was the story of a football-obsessed town in Texas and the dramatic impact of the game on the life of its residents. But there’s something that already sets All American apart from its Southern predecessor. Starring veteran actor Taye Diggs as a Beverly High School coach looking for a career comeback and Daniel Ezra as his star recruit from a gang-ridden Crenshaw high school, race is front and center in All American. Did Friday Night Lights get a differently-titled reboot for the Black Lives Matter generation?
This is a convenient conclusion to come to. All American’s premiere episode seems to set the tone for this within the first few minutes. It opens with Spencer (Ezra) suited up with his Crenshaw teammates in the thick of game. They’re winning, but the festive mood is interrupted by gunshots when a driveby leaves someone injured just outside of the football field gates. Police and ambulance lights quickly replace the high stadium beams in the next few moments, and any hope for a wholesome teen show, where nothing too bad or too real happens, is out the window. It’s clear that football involves a different kind of drama for our Black protagonist. All American is clearly sensitive to the need for more inclusive representation of people from different backgrounds and reflects the broader call for more images of Blackness across various forms of media.
Diversity is pretty important to everyone right now. But it looks very different to generation Z, CW’s target demographic. Today’s young people prefer a more holistic brand of inclusivity. They want to see a variety of races, abilities, classes, and sexualities represented on screen. Thanks to these demands, All American has an openly lesbian character, Coop (Bre-Z), Coach Billy Baker’s (Diggs) kids are all biracial, and the central premise of the show is that Spencer moves from poor Crenshaw to uber-wealthy Beverly Hills. But I’m not sure that the show presents a meaningful commentary on race or what it means to Black in both athletic and education systems. Acknowledging our differences and figuring out a way to put them on display is important work, but it does not equate to a Black Lives Matter moment.
All American is, regardless, refreshingly Black. The soundtrack is everything, Diggs himself is one of the classic Black actors from my generation, and Ezra’s performance is realistic and moving. The interlocking politics of race, sports, and school is real and has been the subject of numerous documentaries, and this series dramatizes it effectively, if superficially. The series also acknowledges, but doesn’t fully explore, issues of gang violence, police surveillance and intervention, and loopholes in “the system.” But not everything Black fits into a Black Lives Matter narrative, nor should it.
Black Lives Matter — the organized effort to end anti-Black violence and the cultural consciousness that has come with it — is more than any singular TV show with Black characters. To suggest otherwise is reductive. Let us also not forget that All American creator April Blair and co-producer Berlanti are both white. They’ve given the Friday Night Lights theme a necessary update and it’s awesome. But, ultimately, it is not radical enough to be “for” such an impactful social movement. No shade.