At the beginning of All American, the CW drama following a Black teen (Daniel Ezra) struggling to reconcile his Compton identity with his promising new life as a football star living in Beverly Hills, it explored questions of Blackness, colorism, and privilege through a mostly singular coming-of-age story. Now, as that narrative continues to evolve in All American Season 3, we see some of those same themes play out with varying degrees of success, and a central character grappling with a seemingly self-appointed responsibility to be everything to everyone.
Issues of identity throughout adolescence are as common as ever, especially in today’s social media world where they are too often subject to the court of public opinion, and All American has filtered that through a fascinating high school sports lens. It began with the question: What happens to Spencer (Ezra) — the young Black athlete who earns a ticket to success in a mostly white, affluent neighborhood but also feels obligated to uphold his old district — as well as his single mother (Karimah Westbrook) and brother (Jalyn Hall)? But since then, showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll expanded the series, inspired by real-life football player Spencer Paysinger, beyond its locker-room appeal to more widely explore both landscapes and the people inside them. And it’s been better for it.
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Originating from the show’s Compton storyline, there is Spencer’s longtime best friend, Coop (Bre-Z), who he has managed to somewhat take under his wing and away from criminal activity, so that she can fully realize her dreams to be a rapper. Coop’s evolution, propelled by Bre-Z’s endlessly engaging performance, has gone from supporting character to a dominant narrative that delves into her career aspirations, a new dynamic with her now-touring singer girlfriend (Chelsea Tavares), as well as a past that continues to follow her.
Similarly, there is plenty of interesting drama stemming from the Beverly Hills side of the series. Spencer’s move into, then later out of, coach Billy Baker’s home (Taye Diggs) sparked the latter’s entire family to have difficult conversations about race for the first time in their remarkably elite lives. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Carroll and her team have grounded the characters even further now by incorporating today’s era of the Black Lives Matter movement into their storylines.
Not only is Coach Baker’s family grappling with their own complicity, which has compelled his daughter, Olivia (Samantha Logan), to establish her own woke agenda, they all have engrossing storylines. Billy still struggles to repair his marriage with his wife (Monet Mazur) after she learns of his long-ago affair with Spencer’s mom, while he also fights to gain the respect of his new football team in Compton that is reluctant to embrace both his and Spencer’s return to the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Billy’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), grapples with a surprising new coach as well as how to navigate what is left of his relationship with Simone (GeffriMaya) after finding out he is not the father of her baby, and now she is forced to make a tough decision. Oh, and Olivia, like pretty much everyone else on this show, must deal with her own share of romance drama as she rekindles her relationship with Asher (Cody Christian), just as the new school year brings new obstacles for them.
All the characters — as well as the actors — bring so much to All American that it should compel the writers to develop a fresh objective for Spencer, who’s been reduced to someone who’s assigned himself obligations that far exceed his allegiance to his neighborhood or determining his own identity. While his relationship with his mom has always teetered more on man-of-the-house and less on son (especially with a Black mother who doesn’t seem like she would tolerate any such nonsense), Spencer’s insistence that he take on paternal duties or advise Billy on how to manage his team are superfluous.
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Judging only by the first two episodes of the new season that have been made available to press, it seems like the writers have run out of ideas for Spencer, which is hard to imagine considering that even after everything that has already happened, there is still room for self-discovery for him. Though he and his girlfriend, Layla (Greta Oniegou), are now on the outs — and she is wrapped up in the music world with Patience, anyway — this could be a good time to take a closer look at his post-high school dreams and/or his own paternal void, especially since his father’s death. It’s time to really answer the question: Who does Spencer want to be? Or maybe an easier question considering his age: How does Spencer feel about who he is right now?
Still, All American is an easily digestible series dealing with real-world issues primarily through a teenage lens, even if it has forgotten its initial purpose. Ezra, who’s consistently been able to mask his native British accent better than many veteran actors, remains an engaging protagonist whose talents will hopefully be put to greater use this season.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
All American Season 3 premieres Monday, Jan. 18 on The CW