“All American,” a new drama from The CW, is billed as “Friday Night Lights” meets “The O.C.” Sure, that’s true, in the same way Cooper Manning is a Manning brother: same genes, same potential. But at the end of the day, for reasons fortuitous and otherwise, Peyton and Eli have Super Bowl rings, and Cooper trades energy stock. Which is to say, “All American” should be great TV, but it’s not.
For a high school football drama, it’s strangely low-energy and lacking in verve. That’s a real disappointment coming from a network that, in recent years, has made some really fun, crackling television.
Like “The O.C.,” “All American” is a fish-out-of-water story. Wide receiver Spencer James (Daniel Ezra, “The Missing”) is given the opportunity to transfer from his inner-city high school and play for the posh Beverly Hills High School under Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs, “Set It Up”), a gentile Sandy Cohen figure desperate to win a championship.
Spencer is bright, hardworking and — did someone say Ryan Atwood? — beneath his tough guy act, a real mensch. He is also the only character who emerges from the pilot feeling like something more than a rough personality sketch, thanks to a textured performance from Daniel Ezra. Quick aside: The British Ezra — congrats, Daniel — is hereby awarded this year’s Matthew Rhys Award for American Accent Believability. As per tradition, the award will be presented by last year’s winner, Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”).
“The O.C.” echoes abound. Upon arriving at his new school, Spencer crushes on Leila (Greta Onieogou, “Heartland”), an impossibly, tragically beautiful waif with terrible taste in friends. She is very nice, of course, but is inexplicably dating the meanest person alive, another football player who tells Spencer to go back to his old school (which would strike me as cartoonishly evil had someone not actually said this to me when I started a new elementary school. Lauren, I hope you’re well.) Spencer finds some support in Coach Baker’s daughter Olivia (Samantha Logan, “Teen Wolf”), a social outcast who takes it upon herself to show him around.
Does “All American” have what it takes to rise above “The O.C.” and say something meaningful? Maybe. The premise itself — a poor Black kid finds himself in a rich, white environment — suggests that “All American” is at least going to try. And it could very well be successful. After all, wasn’t “Friday Night Lights” really just one elaborate con job? A show about Americana and faith, masculinity and underfunded public schools, broken homes and improbable dreams, masquerading as a show about football?
Despite source material that examined race extensively and a small-town setting brimming with possibility for exploring the issue, “Friday Night Lights” sometimes had the unfortunate tendency to compartmentalize much of that possibility into “racism episodes” and obvious “racism storylines.”
But TV’s handling of tense political issues has come quite far in the few years since “Friday Night Lights” left the air. And the intersection between sports and politics is increasingly fraught and conspicuous. Incisive, nuanced storytelling might be what “All American” needs to find a fresh, compelling groove.