“Pilot” (Episode 101)
October 10, 2018
All American, airing on The CW, is one of the hottest new shows of the Fall. From April Blair (Into the Badlands; YOU; Reign), who serves as Executive Producer along with Greg Berlanti (the Arrowverse), All American tells the story of a high school football phenom who moves from his home in Crenshaw, California to play ball at Beverly Hills High School. It follows his ups and down as he navigates a world radically different from the one he’s known before.
The show is based on the life of Spencer Paysinger, a professional football player, and stars Daniel Ezra as the phenom, Spencer James, and Taye Diggs as the coach that recruits him.
Our recap of the series premiere follows and our review is at the end. Spoilers, we really enjoyed the show!
Meet Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), football phenom for South Crenshaw High School. A few seconds into the episode and you can feel the electricity around this kid – he sees the field, he understands how football works and his team trusts him. This is why they are willing, with the game on the line, to ignore the coach’s play and go with Spencer’s line of scrimmage audible. Spencer catches the pass deep and waltzes into the endzone. South Crenshaw wins. The world belongs to Spencer.
Shots ring out as gang bangers do a drive by at the field. Screams erupt as everyone, fans and players alike, drop to the ground. Everyone, except for Spencer. He stands in the endzone, arms outstretched, wondering how his moment of glory was dashed in an instant. Let’s not forget, we’re in Crenshaw, California.
After the game, Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), coach of the Beverly Hill varsity team, catches up with Spencer. A little chit chat flattery and Billy cuts to the chase – he wants Spencer to come play for him. He’s been watching Spencer and he’s what Beverly Hills needs to be a winning team. Billy says the proposal as a win win for both them – Beverly Hills gets a star player and Spencer gets a better (and safer) education and with Billy’s NFL contacts, a road to the pros. Spencer isn’t about any of that though, citing the recruitment violations that he might face (which would bench him for the season) plus the fact South Crenshaw is home. Thanks but no thanks, coach.
“This is where I belong.”
Billy takes the rejection well enough and Spencer heads home. With expensive Beats by Dr. Dre on his ears, music pumping, Spencer walks the streets of Crenshaw without fear, saying hi to many people on the street. He’s a celebrity here. In his room though, you can tell he’s thinking about life outside of Crenshaw.
Next morning, we meet the rest of Spencer’s family, his little brother, Dillon (Jalyn Hall), and his mom, Grace (Karimah Westbrook). Spencer grouses about no hot water and we establish quickly Mom is barely getting by – bills run late sometimes when you’re doing it on your own. The boys have Grace’s refrain down pat, “a cold shower now and then, is good for the soul.” Dillon says this with the gusto of a kid, Spencer is less amused.
At school, Spencer rolls with his bestie, a girl named Tiana ‘Coop’ Cooper (Bre-Z). We’re just going to call her Coop. She does her best to dress like a boy and is definitely into the fine ladies of South Crenshaw. The problem is, she hits on girls that “belong” to the other Alpha Male of the school that’s not Spencer, Shawn Scott. Coop insists that Shawn can’t touch her and besides, she’s got Spencer as back-up. As Spencer doodles football plays in class, we see he pulls an A+ on his test. Is this brains or is this football favoritism? I bet its brains.
In the hallway, Shawn (Jay Reeves) has found Coop and things aren’t looking great. Spencer intervenes but after Shawn calls Coop a “she-man,” punches get thrown and Spencer is fighting Shawn and his boys. Security guards break up the fight.
That afternoon, Spencer comes home to find his mom and Coach Baker sitting around, waiting for him. Mom knows all about the shooting at the game AND the fight at school. She turns to Coach and says that she see this type of stuff all the time with good kids gone bad; she works at the courthouse. Dillon chimes in that there are over 450 active gangs in the LA area but Spencer advises that he’s not helping at this very moment.
Coach Baker sits down and gives Spencer some real talk. He grew up in Crenshaw too but someone gave him a chance to get out and he wants to give Spencer the same opportunity. Billy mentions Spencer’s father but he’s gone, Spencer says. Grace adds some exposition that “Corey” left to coach ball in Nevada a few years ago and hasn’t been back since. Spencer clearly has some anger on this topic.
Grace piles on saying that Spencer is smart and he’s breezing by at Crenshaw with zero effort and maybe he can really make something of himself … beyond football.
“Football is my dream. You may not believe in that dream. But I do.”
Grace tells Spencer that he’s refusing this opportunity because he doesn’t want to turn out like his father. But, Grace assures him, Spencer is a good man and she’s proud of who he is. But not taking this shot … its the bad choice. And, if Spencer is being honest with himself, Grace says, he knows this is the best thing for himself. The deal is sealed, as unhappy Spencer looks about it.
The next morning, we see Spencer taking the multiple bus commute, getting off right in front of his new school.
“Welcome to Beverly Hills.”
We come back to Coach Baker walking Spencer through the halls. He’s giving him the rundown on what he needs to do to keep playing ball – maintain his GPA and no fights. The first part should be easy, Billy says, he’s seen Spencer’s transcripts. You can tell it’s the fighting that has him worried.
“Look, no fighting or it’s over. One and done.”
In his first class, biology, Spencer experiences his first taste of culture shock when the assignment is announced and every student begins working on their own tablet or laptop. Told to share with someone for the day, Spencer runs into his first asshole classmate, Todd, who refuses to share his tablet with Spencer. Luckily, Olivia (Samantha Logan) comes to his rescue. After class, Olivia gives him the detailed school tour pointing out where all the food and coffee options are and when sushi is served. Man, I thought my high school was nice. I was wrong.
“Sushi on Friday? At Crenshaw, we get sushi on Monday that’s all.”
Olivia is a smitten kitten with this new boy who is funny AND smart. In the courtyard, Spencer is caught staring at a passing beauty. Olivia narrates for us that she is Leila Keating (Greta Onieogou), Beverly Hills’ resident sweetheart who may or may not have smoked pot with one of the Obama daughters last year. Interesting. Jordan Baker (Michael Evans Behling) comes up to Spencer and Olivia and introduces himself as the team QB, Captain and coach’s son. Also, Olivia’s brother … which makes Olivia the coach’s daughter. Awkward.
Jordan takes over tour guide duties from his sister but not before Spencer locks down “sushi on Friday” with Olivia. She tells him, “it’s a date” and then lambastes herself for being lame.
We get a quick cut to Coach Baker’s office, he’s singing Spencer’s praises and his director tells him the Boosters need a winning season or else … the writing is on the wall.
Jordan introduces Spencer to his crew, teammates and their girls …
There is Hadley (Danielle Campbell), who is with Jordan; Leila, who has a racist douchebag for a boy friend; Lucy (Emily Levine), who is with JJ (Hunter Clowdus) and Asher (Cody Christian), the aforementioned racist douchebag. He’s also a hot shot receiver on the team and, therefore, Spencer’s rival. He is quickly turned off by Leila’s chatting up of Spencer. The latter are immediately flirty flirty.
“So lay it on me, crips or bloods?”
Shut up, Asher. Gah. Jordan and JJ try to cover for their asshole friend, playing it off like a joke but Spencer, rightfully, doesn’t take it that way. Leila runs after and tries to make apologies for all of the meatheads, saying they are threatened by Spencer’s presence. Threatened by what, Spencer asks? From where he is sitting, these Beverly Hills boys got it made while he had to catch 3 buses to get to school and he’s wearing his cousin’s polyester hand me downs.
Point made, says Leila, but she points out that he’s supposed to be the second coming of Jesus on the football field.
“I do all right. You just got to see the field”
As if to prove his ability, he correctly predicts a dorky kid dropping his food tray and then turns his observation power on Leila, calling her out as being dominant and bossy but also alone. She leaves for class but tells him that she’s glad he came to Beverly. “Me too,” he says. Smitten.
After school, we get to see Spencer practice with his new team. He puts on a receiving show but immediately pisses off his teammates by ball hogging and running the wrong plays. Coach tells him to play Safety but Spencer isn’t having it. He came here to play offense, not defense. Coach makes it clear that Spencer will play what he tells him to play or he won’t play at all. Spencer sits out the rest of practice. Not a great first impression.
We come back to nighttime in Crenshaw. Spencer is venting his first day frustrations to Coop. To teammates who don’t want him and a Coach that said he had his back but then stuck him on Defense. When Coop hears the Coach is black,he asks Spencer is maybe Coach knows what he’s doing. Not helping, Coop. Spencer regurgitates his line about Beverly Hills not being who he is and Coop asks the good question that, “what? And this is?!?”
“You decide who you want to be.”
Wise words Coop. The two friends are interrupted by Shawn and his boys, homeboy is looking for a fight but the cops show up before they can get into it.
Baker House. Billy comes up to Jordan to talk about Spencer. Jordan is quick to say Spencer wasn’t much of a team player and Billy tells his son that he needs Jordan to help Spencer out. Take Spencer under his wing. Billy tells his son that he grew up where Spencer did and it’s a shit show compared to this cushy Beverly Hills life that Jordan knows. Give him a chance, is Billy’s request. Jordan agrees but it’s not quite reaching his eyes if you know what I mean.
The next day, Jordan picks Spencer up in the hood, in his red car and red hat. Spencer jumps in and tells him he looks like “Bloods Poster Boy,” that he’s going to get his head blown off. The blood drains from Jordan’s face and Spencer starts to laugh. Just kidding, he says! They drive off. they roll up to the Baker house and it’s palatial. Jordan explains that his mom is an attorney. Inside, Laura Baker (Monet Mazur) is very sweet to her husband’s secret weapon. She asks Spencer if he has any food allergies, she’s making her famous gazpacho and needs to know. No, Spencer explains, he’s just always hungry is all. Jordan extricates Spencer from Mom and they go off to hang out, pool side.
Cue the slow music montage of beautiful people swimming and sun bathing and everyone looking thirsty as fuck. None more so than Leila, as she watches Spencer coming out of the pool. He catches her staring and she smiles as she turns away. She comes over and makes small talk. She lives close just down the street but it’s not really about the size of the house that matters. These two and their chemistry. Jordan watches them a bit and heads inside to get some more drinks.
Jordan overhears his father on the phone, with a Booster I imagine, and it’s not great. Billy is talking about Spencer purely as a tool with zero of the concern he’s been professing to Jordan (and to Spencer himself) about the boy and his hard life.
“I would not have recruited him if anyone on the squad had half of his potential.”
Jordan hears his father invite the Boosters down to watch Spencer in action on Saturday. Back outside, Asher is not pleased that his girl is talking very close to Spencer, and Asher and Jordan agree that Spencer has to go.
Sushi Friday. Spencer asks why Olivia and Jordan aren’t terribly close and she explains that when they got to high school, Jordan became a big football star and she became a social pariah.
“No one’s super eager to hang out with sober girl, post rehab.”
At his prompting, Olivia explains that she went down a bad path and tried to wash it away with pills but it’s all great now. Good as new. Spencer picks up the false note and asks if it’s really okay. She tells him that he’s the first person to actually ask her that … which is really sad. Leila interrupts their sweet moment with an invite to a party at her house that night; celebrate the stat of the season. Alone, Olivia reminds him that Leila is dating Asher and also, those parties … “I’d steer clear.” Something tells me that Spencer will not be heeding her advice.
Friday Night Party! Spencer shows up to the pretty people party and quickly finds a corner to stand in. Leila calls him out for not making an effort to meet people and fit in. He tries to leave but Jordan catches him by the arm and tells him the “team managers” are dying to meet him. That’s code for hot chicks in the hot tub. Leila starts passing out shots and Spencer is all, “we got practice tomorrow” but Jordan assures him that’s Saturday practice is no big deal. Shots Shots Shots Shots!!!
The next morning, Spencer is hurting. He’s in bad shape and only feels worse when JJ explains the Boosters arriving are there to see Spencer. Specifically. Spencer is confused, he thought it was just drills but JJ is all, “nah man, it’s scrimmage day. Woot woot! ” Boss got set up by his team, hard. That being said, I love JJ. He’s a good time.
Practice goes as well as you can expect and actually gets worse when Spencer gets in his teammates’ faces for setting him up. Asher doesn’t even try to hide what they did at all, even naming Leila as complicit in getting him to the party so they could make him look bad today. He tells Spencer to go back to Crenshaw … which is when Spencer drops his helmet. Coach Baker is there to hold him back, telling Spencer that he will not let him blow his shot. He reminds Spencer of his “one fight and it’s over” rule. Coach baker is also holding his son responsible but Jordan objects. He calls his father on the lies he’s told to get Spencer to Beverly Hills and save his own job. Jordan looks over his father’s head and speaks right to Spencer, making sure that Spencer understands that Billy is only looking out for Billy.
“You don’t matter to him.”
The Boosters are watching all of this from the stands, they are not impressed.
In the locker room, Coach Baker chases Spencer down and tris to stop him from quitting. He tries to convince Spencer that he needs Coach more than Coach needs Spencer (I think it’s 50/50) and Spencer isn’t really in the mood to listen. He is still pissed that Billy brought him to make him play defense.
“I need you to see the field from every angle. Because when you do, you’ll be unstoppable.”
Coach goes on that he sees the anger from Spencer’s father leaving is making Spencer want to fight anyone he can, but Spencer’s got to understand that his choices now, will affect his life forever.
We come back to Spencer telling Coop he can’t keep living with his feet in two different worlds, especially when he doesn’t feel like he belongs in either. Coop tells him to “take the best of both and you boss up.” Coop should charge money for her advice. It’s top notch.
Spencer has other concerns. Like what happens to Coop with the Shawn problem, if Spencer is gone? Coop tells him that the whole situation is cool now, Shawn backed off. Coop seals the deal telling Spencer that if he had a fraction of Spencer’s talent, she’d bounce and wouldn’t look back. And, think of the life he could give Dillon and his mom. Coop is a good friend. The price for this good advice? A Ducati once Spencer is rolling in that “Super Bowl confetti.” Spencer hears his friends words.
The Baker House. Spencer shows up to see Coach.
“I want to play in the NFL. I want a life better than the one I’ve been living.”
He tells Billy that he is angry about his dad and how hard his mom has to struggle, and how hard all of life seems to be. And that it’s that anger that Billy sees between those white lines when Spencer plays – it’s what fuels Spencer. He tells Coach Baker that Beverly can give Spencer that chance at a better life, football or not. And he’ll play wherever Coach needs him. But first, he needs to know why Billy chose him.
“Because I wanted to win, Spencer.”
Honesty is so refreshing, isn’t it? He straight up tells Spencer that through Spencer, he thought he could get back a little of what he lost when his knee went. But, after seeing Spencer on the field, he saw himself inside of Spencer. And he gets that Spencer plays cause he’s angry but now, Coach Baker wants Spencer to play for something bigger than that.
Game Time. It’s Friday Night Lights football fans, the Beverly High Eagles are at home, squaring off against Chatsworth. Momma James and Dillon are in the stands and Spencer is ready to go. Chatsworth takes a quick lead and there is music over lots of football montage. We see Spencer playing good defense and Beverly Hills is keeping it close though they are still losing. It’s final possession for Beverly Hills and not much time on the clock. Spencer sees one of the Chatsworth players is hurt. He tells Coach Baker to run a pay where Asher throws a block against the guy allowing Jordan to score by going around him. Baker asks if Spencer thinks that he can take the big guy? “I know I can.”
Baker makes his decision and pulls Asher off the field. Spencer goes in and the play is called. The ball is snapped and Spencer takes off to the side. He lowers his shoulder and throws a big ass block taking out the main defender. Jordan runs into the hole and scrambles the 25 yards to touchdown. Beverly Hills wins!
Coach Baker only has eyes (and praise) for Spencer, which leaves his son who just scored the touchdown feeling a little butt hurt. Jordan calls over a player from Chatworth for a chat.
As Spencer is coming off the field, Olivia is positioning herself to run into him but Leila cuts across her and apologizes for her part in the drunken party plan. She offers to start over again and Spencer is all smiles. Olivia walks off in the background. The Baker kids are NOT having a great night, despite the win.
The Next Day. Spencer is all of a sudden a big deal on campus. Overnight, everyone seems to know who he is and his smile is glowing brightly. Which is when it all goes wrong. Coach Baker calls him over. We’ve got a problem, he says. Chatsworth is protesting Spencer’s transfer permit. That wipes the smile off of Spencer’s face right quick.
We come back and the athletic director is telling Baker that no one is going to believe the Football coach went down to Crenshaw to pull Spencer to the school because he’s smart. Even though he actually is smart. The other option? Spencer moves to the Beverly Hills zip code.
Cut to Grace discussing with Spencer the option we didn’t hear all of; Spencer is going to move into Coach Baker’s house. He’ll live in Beverly Hills Monday through Friday and come home to Crenshaw on the weekends. Grace isn’t terribly happy about this but he reminds her of this being the best things for him. Dillon gives his blessing too, though he’d like Spencer’s room when he’s gone. “Definitely not.” The James family all hugs.
Baker House. Billy walks in with his new tenant and Laura gives him a big hug. Jordan looks like he cannot believe what he is seeing — his plan was so fool proof though – but in the end, shakes hands with Spencer. We don’t see Olivia.
In her big, empty house, Leila sits alone.
Back in Crenshaw, Coop is rolling with Shawn’s crew now. She looks very apprehensive which makes me think she is going to do something she should not, just to fit in.
Back to Spencer as he takes in the plush room he now has in the Baker House. Olivia pops in his doorway, “welcome to Beverly Hills, Spencer.” He smiles. She leaves.
Crenshaw. Grace hears a knock. She opens the door and there is Coach Baker standing there.
“Hey, Gracie. We need to talk. We’ve got to tell Spencer the truth.”
As Spencer looks out into the backyard of this new home, the episode comes to a close.
Thoughts. Disclaimer, I love football movies and TV shows. No matter the particular trope they are exploring, I just find them entertaining. So, I was excited about All American before I knew anything else about the show. Add in Greg Berlanti’s involvement and I was here for the party.
So, imagine how happy I was when I realized that this was actually a really good show. Remove the football and you still have an interesting drama with realistic teenagers playing out a dynamic story for our time.
Normally, I am very dismissive of teenage dramas, not because I have a particular problem with them but because they are done so poorly so often. Either the stories are uber-cliches or so far fetched as to be condescending or annoying. Or, the acting is so flat or cloying as to make me want to vomit. Or, the production values are so dismal that you are completely disengaged from the story the show is trying to tell.
But, with All American, The CW is giving us cable-level dramatic stories, acting and production values. The character of Spencer James could easily turn into a one-note badboy from the hood but Ezra’s performance is nuanced and sensitive, which in turn makes him a believable high schooler.
Spencer James has got athlete bravado for days but at the same time, is devoted to his mother and little brother and to his best friend. Ezra is giving us a lot of emotions to process and they are all pitch perfect for the moment. When he realizes he’s been pranked after the Saturday practice, he conveys hurt and anger; when he tells Coop he doesn’t know how he can live in both worlds, you understand that he is really struggling with this anxiety of not fitting in.
Another aspect of his character that I really enjoyed from the Pilot was his ability to be a friend with not one but two females without having to fall into the typical stereotype of being either lascivious and gross or gay. Heterosexual teenage boys CAN be friends with women and it not be weird. I think his relationship with Coop and the burgeoning friendship with Olivia was among the strongest parts of the episode. Kudos to the writing staff for giving Ezra something to work with and to Ezra for pulling it off flawlessly.
A well done High School drama has seasons worth of storyline to mine and so, I am looking forward to seeing this first season of All American roll out. Add to the teenage drama, the Sword of Damocles that seems to be forever hanging over Coach Baker’s head and how those ever present threats from the Boosters affect his job and decision making skills and we’ve got ourselves several delicious plot threads to pull at.
And last, that end scene. The “Gracie”?!? The “we’ve got to tell Spencer the truth”?!? What the What?!? In the beginning of the episode, there is not a hint that Billy and Grace know each other; despite him letting us know that he came from Crenshaw. They speak to each other in front of Spencer as if they are strangers so what is going on here. The obvious guess is that Billy is Spencer’s biological father but we’ll see if that’s where they take it. If not that, what could it possibly be?!?
Join me next week for an all new All American!