All American. The CW. Wednesday, October 10, 9 p.m.
The CW says its new teen drama All American is based on the life of former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger. Bosh, I declare; it's an epic biopic of the legendary Ryan Atwood, a slumdog kid from Chino who moved to Newport Beach, got brutally beaten up by the swells his first night ("Welcome to the O.C.!" shouted one of them while kicking him in the crotch), but afterward picked off the prettiest girl in school, and, when she died, the second-prettiest. And then he rode off into the sunset, or at least, the Berkeley campus.
Ryan Atwood's existence did not extend into real life. He was a character in The O.C., the first teen soap of the Millennium, in which the hunky poor waged a heroic struggle against their hardbody class enemies. Scoff if you will, but for a while it was drawing 12 million viewers a week, which compared pretty favorably to Bernie Sanders' version of class struggle.
The O.C. has been gone for 15 years—teenage hotties, sadly, don't live forever—but the gap in our cultural consciousness can now be filled by All American, which is a virtual clone. Or if not a clone, maybe a sequel to The Fly, where Jeff Goldblum or Vincent Price gets into a teleporter to beam somewhere else but unknown to them, somebody put a DVD of Friday Night Lights into the chamber with them and on the other side they come out all yucky and mixed up with football helmets on their heads.
This may sound confusing, or even slightly psychotic—you watch these fall-season pilots for a month and see what happens—but All American really is an eerily precise copy of The O.C. lightly draped in a football raiment.
British TV actor Daniel Ezra, who was apparently equally well-tutored in speaking with an American accent and running fly routes, plays Spencer James, a good-hearted kid star wide receiver at his sketchy high school in South Central Los Angeles. The finances of his single mom (Karimah Westbrook, Girlfriends) can be summed up in her motto, "A cold shower now and then is good for the soul." And Spencer is often in trouble at school for using his fists to defend weaker kids against the neighborhood's voracious street gangs.
But opportunity comes knocking—or perhaps punching—in the form of Billy Baker (Taye Diggs, Empire), the coach at the much tonier Beverly Hills High, who offers Spencer a spot on his team and a bedroom in his house, the latter to evade rules about players living within a school's district. At his mom's urging, Spencer accepts.
Anybody who watched The O.C. knows what happens next. Spencer immediately melts the icy heart and/or nether parts of the previously unattainable Beverly Hills dream girl Leila Keating (Greta Onieogou, Heroes Reborn), daughter of a filthy rich and politically elite ('They spend every Thanksgiving with the Obamas!") record producer.
The other kids, so inextricably bound by class, privilege, and a pills-and-party ethos that they even mock themselves—"It probably feels like lost footage of rich kids from Instagram," one confesses of the school—immediately band together against this freebooting pirate from the badlands. And soon All American is one long reel of fistfights, sexual adventurism, and manically competitive consumerism. As in The O.C. , there's a certain amount of illicit hide-the-weenie among the various parents to provide moral exoneration for the teenagers, who after all are just chips off the old blockheads.
The single potentially significant difference between All American and The O.C., the racial element (Spencer is black; most, though not all, of the Beverly Hills kids are white), is not really exploited. The conflicts in All American are more about insider and outsider, team player and hot dog, than race or class.
Those clashes are very real to The CW's teenybopper audience, of course. But All American really fails to engage above the Barbie Dream House level. The cast is more than decent—Ezra will doubtless be the Next Big Thing among the post-Bieber generation—but the writing is pretty mundane. I found myself longing for the luscious Summer Roberts of The O.C., who once defended wistfully insisted, "I'm not that dumb, I'm just shallow." We'll see if All American viewers will settle for half a loaf.