In the past month, an influx of viewers have discovered the most slept-on TV series of the past two years: the CW’s All American, starring Taye Diggs as Billy Baker, the Beverly Hills High school football coach who recruits and mentors the talented Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) from Crenshaw in South LA.
The teen drama premiered in October 2018 and returned for a second season in 2019, yielding less-than-desirable ratings. Airing on Monday nights at 8 p.m., All American Season 2 averaged 1.1 million viewers and was tied for 201st place for primetime shows in the 18–49 age demographic, according to Nielsen. But after the second season started streaming on Netflix in March — around the same time most states in the US mandated people stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — the show skyrocketed in popularity, holding the No. 1 spot on the streaming service out of every other TV show and movie. While Netflix doesn’t publicly share its data, there are reportedly more than 69 million subscribers in the US who kept All American in Netflix’s Top 10 most-watched series for the past month.
The show, which is based on the true story of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, has since become the subject of millions of videos on TikTok and jokes on Twitter and Instagram. Over the course of the first two seasons, viewers watch as Spencer James navigates his two worlds: his original home in Crenshaw and his new life in Beverly Hills, exploring his relationships with family members, friends, and enduring all of the struggles and triumphs that come with being a teenager.
Showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll told BuzzFeed News that the CW has been supportive of the show even with its linear ratings and noted there was a spike in people who discovered All American after the first season dropped on Netflix. But no one on their team expected the show to explode the way it did when Season 2 started streaming.
“Unfortunately, we ended up in a situation where a lot of people were being forced to stay at home, and the silver lining that came out of that was here was a show that we pride on being aspirational. Yes, all the characters go through it, but at the end it is a hopeful story and it felt like it just came at a time when I know I could use a lot of hope,” Okoro Carroll said. “From the messages I started receiving from fans, it sounded like that’s what the show was giving them during a time when everything on the outside is so uncertain, and that has just been an absolute blessing for the show, to be able to provide that kind of comfort to people is above and beyond anything that we were expecting.”
With both 16-episode seasons streaming on Netflix and the CW, All American is perfect viewing at a time when people are staying home and have time to catch up before Season 3 comes back on TV. Now that everyone is rightfully obsessed with All American, here are nine things viewers should know about the series, according to Okoro Carroll. (Consider yourself warned — there are LOTS OF SPOILERS ahead.)
1. The show is inspired by Spencer Paysinger’s real life but is not 100% identical to all of the former NFL player’s experiences.
Spencer Paysinger was involved in putting the pitch for All American together with executive producer Greg Berlanti and original creator April Blair, Okoro Carroll said. Paysinger even makes a couple of appearances on the show as a Beverly Hills assistant football coach. And while the show isn’t a complete mirror image of his life, it’s still very much based on his experiences.
“The essence of things that happened to Spencer Paysinger, the essence of the stories we’re telling, are all grounded in things that Spencer has either experienced or were part of his football career, both as a student and as a professional,” she said. “He is still very much grounded in the heart of who Spencer James is, the essence of what our character experiences.”
As All American continues to evolve, the storylines don’t always resonate with things that Paysinger experienced himself. For example, in real life, Paysinger’s father is very much alive while Spencer James’s father dies in the second season. But the showrunner said the former NFL player is still inspiring plenty of material in the series, and she encourages him to stop by the writers room whenever he wants.
“We use his stories as inspiration for building out the characters’ fictional stories from there, and the further we get away from Season 1, it isn't a one-to-one correlation about his life,” Okoro Carroll said. “What ends up happening is so many of us in the writers room have our own personal experiences with subject matters that we're dealing with that it ends up being an amalgamation of Spencer Paysinger’s story with a little bit of like of everyone else’s stories thrown in.”
“Everyone is bringing personal experiences to the table,” Okoro Carroll added. “So that the show feels like an authentic, grounded story about what it's like to grow up as a teen of color in America.”
2. All American pays homage to past teen dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210, One Tree Hill, and Dawson’s Creek.
When All American started to gain more traction with viewers, a lot of people who were immersing themselves in the show were drawing comparisons to other teen dramas that felt similar to them: Friday Night Lights, a series about a football team on a quest for greatness in Dillon, Texas; The OC, another show set in Southern California where a rich family takes in a teenage boy who has a complicated family life; and of course Beverly Hills, 90210, which shares the same backdrop as All American.
Okoro Carroll said the similarities people are finding aren’t intentional, but make sense because of the writing staff’s affinity for all of those shows.
“I feel like it's through osmosis because there are so many of us who have such a love for those old-school teen shows,” she said. “There are a lot of us on the show that grew up on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 — to this day we still argue over Kelly, Dylan, Brandon, and all of that stuff — and we have another group of us who all loved Dawson's Creek, and so many other of those shows coming up.”
Dawson's Creek was a major influence on Okoro Carroll, who said the show used to be on her vision board before she became a screenwriter and was working as an economist at the Federal Reserve. She also said some of the writers who are staffed on All American also wrote for One Tree Hill.
“Someone once mentioned to me that the show kind of has an old-school feel to it, not in a negative way, but more in a way that TV dramas used to make us feel,” Okoro Carroll said. “It's bringing that sensation back and that makes me happy because those were the shows I always loved. If we're creating that kind of nostalgia, but in a new and interesting way for our audience, then we’re doing our jobs.”
3. All American is a show about the different coming-of-age experiences black teenagers have growing up.
The role of representation on All American is an important one, according to Okoro Carroll, who said the team didn’t necessarily set out to make a TV show about race. But in order to authentically build a fictional world around Spencer Paysinger’s life, “we were going to have to populate South LA, and when he was coming up in South LA it was predominantly African American.”
“We also didn't want this to be a quote-unquote white savior story where Spencer moves in with a white family in Beverly Hills. We wanted it to be more of a universal story of what Spencer went through living in two worlds,” Okoro Carroll said.
The showrunner added that what makes All American stand apart is the fact that these two worlds on the show aren’t necessarily divided by race. The show features predominantly black characters and actors, all of whom exist in both Crenshaw and Beverly Hills.
“It’s a commentary on class; it’s a commentary on diversity within the black community. We're not a monolith,” she said. “It was an opportunity to tell a story that explored two worlds without it having to look like one world is white and one world is black.”
With characters like Olivia and Jordan Baker (Michael Evans Behling), Layla (Greta Onieogou), and Asher (Cody Christian) who grew up in Beverly Hills and then Spencer, his longtime best friend Coop (Bre-Z), Patience (Chelsea Tavares), and Chris (Spence Moore II) who live in Crenshaw, Okoro Carroll said the writers are able to each character’s lens and storyline “to tell these different views of being a black youth in America.”
“These two worlds on our show come in various shapes, sizes, classes, everything, and for Spencer, we like to explore the question of how do you reconcile those two sides of you? How do you straddle both those worlds and also allow us to tell a story that is about black teens across America?” she said. “We're doing it through Beverly Hills and South LA, but it's representative of the fact that not all black teens are having the same experience in America.”
4. The show’s representation onscreen and in its storytelling is reflective of its diversity behind the scenes.
In order to pull off a TV series that authentically tells a coming-of-age story about what it means to be a black teenager growing up in both Crenshaw and Beverly Hills, Okoro Carroll said it’s important that the writers room and everyone who works on the production reflect that same level of representation.
“There are people who came up like Spencer and played in the NFL. We have people like me who came from a country like Nigeria but ended up going to boarding school in England and had such a different upbringing and then came back to the United States for college. We have writers who grew up in Oakland and have had all sorts of different careers before they became writers,” she said. “We all have our own different versions of the fish-out-of-water story that we're able to speak to.”
The show also hires outside consultants to make sure they’re portraying things accurately, including Coop’s gang storyline.
“Yes, we're a CW show, and yes, there has to be a sort of filter that we put on some of the gang storylines. But at the heart of all of them, we have consultants that we talk to and work with who can authentically tell us, ‘That would never happen,’ or ‘Coop would have to be jumped into the gang, she can't just stroll in,’” Okoro Carroll explained. “We have to actually truthfully represent that, or at least what our version of that is.”
5. Layla’s storyline about depression and suicide is meant to help educate people about mental health.
In the second season of All American, Spencer’s girlfriend and Olivia’s longtime friend Layla struggles with her mental health. Her dad, a record producer, is on the road for work and her mom died in a car accident, so she’s home alone and feeling scared after there’s been a break-in at her house. Layla’s friends start to worry about her when she behaves in ways that are out of character for her — she quits student council, shows up late to class, and lies about her dad being home and how she’s actually living in a hotel. Spencer even notices cuts on her wrist.
Okoro Carroll said there wasn’t “a single person in our writers room that Olivia’s story wasn’t extremely personal for,” noting how all of them had been impacted by mental illness in some way, whether it was a loved one or even themselves battling various forms of depression.
“It's such a reality for teens across the world, not even just in America,” she said. “And it felt like if we could do something to shed some light on it, if we can do something to not only make people who are going through it feel less alone but also help explain it for those who may not understand what they’re going through because maybe it doesn't fit the textbook definition of what they think depression is, or it doesn't look the way people think depression would look, if we can help shed some light on that, then maybe we could save a life.”
Okoro Carroll said many people aren’t able to identify depression “because it doesn't look like someone walking around mopey, talking about not wanting to be here.”
“One of the most devastating things to me, as a parent, as someone who's married to a teacher, and as a human, is every time I read one of those stories about a young person who took their life because it all just got too much,” Okoro Carroll said.
6. Olivia Baker’s constantly evolving storyline depicts what it’s like to be a teen dealing with addiction.
Olivia Baker, played by Samantha Logan, is a fan favorite in the series, especially popular for being a “pillar of strength” on the show, always supporting family and friends through their respective trials and tribulations. While viewers see Olivia as someone who is always there for others, her backstory shows a different side of her, when she was struggling with addiction.
“In terms of authentic representation, if we’re going to tell a story about a teen addict, it was very important to me that it wasn’t just a character description that makes her edgy and cool. If we were going to do that, we wanted to really breathe life into what it’s like to be a recovering teen addict and what comes along with that,” Okoro Carroll said.
In Season 1, Episode 12, All American shows a flashback illustrating Olivia’s drug and alcohol problem, revealing an emotional scene when her twin brother, Jordan, finds her after she has overdosed and her parents call for help. In the present day, Olivia celebrates her one-year anniversary of being sober and is surprised to see her entire family show up and support her at an AA meeting.
“One of the big reasons why we did the flashback to her rock bottom was to show what it was like for her and how also it's still something she battles with every day. It's something that you don't just overcome. On a daily basis, she wakes up and makes a concerted effort to stay sober that day,” Okoro Carroll said.
Okoro Carroll said there was a lot of discussion in the writers room about how they wanted Olivia’s character to evolve, which led to how she processed being by Spencer’s side when he was shot in Episode 10.
“We felt like we were doing that character a disservice if we really didn't delve into the truth if something like that could rock her to her core to the point where she could potentially fall off the wagon,” the showrunner said. “We felt like it was important to tell that story and how that can happen, even if you're trying to do all the right things by seeking counseling at school and trying to be super hyperaware of it.”
7. Billy Baker isn’t necessarily supposed to be a perfect character.
Billy Baker, who coaches his son Jordan and Spencer James at Beverly Hills High School, is a complicated character who makes his fair share of mistakes as a coach, father, and husband. He covers up Jordan’s failed drug test and doesn’t show up for his daughter, Olivia, when she’s dealing with addiction — and it’s revealed at the end of Season 1 that Billy cheats on his wife, Laura (Monet Mazur), with Spencer’s mom, his high school sweetheart, Grace (Karimah Westbrook).
“His heart is in the right place 9 times out of 10, but he makes mistakes,” Okoro Carroll said. “One of the things that we find our characters saying to each other a lot on the show is, ‘People make mistakes. It’s what you do after you make them that really determines who you are and what your story is.’ And we really sort of believe that almost as a mantra.”
8. The characters’ friendships are supposed to be hopeful, positive examples of what healthy teen friendships can look like.
One of the aspects of All American that Okoro Carroll said she’s most proud of is the healthy dynamics and display of friendship between all of the young people on the show. According to the showrunner, the creators are aiming to make “an aspirational show” that “leaves people with that feeling of hope and positivity.
“No matter how much they fight and whatever drama they go through, at the end of the day they’re loyal to each other,” she said.
Spencer moving in with the Baker family is a catalyst, Okoro Carroll said, for his two worlds in Beverly Hills and Crenshaw crossing over and, in turn, helping to form new and fulfilling friendships between a lot of the characters.
“You've got this amazing friendship with Layla and Coop developing. You've got this brotherhood between Spencer and Jordan that also develops. You have [Crenshaw football player] Chris and Olivia, you've got Asher and Spencer who came such a long way from where they were when they first met in the pilot,” she explained. “And it's important to me that we continue to develop and cultivate these healthy friendships amongst teens. Yes, you can be each other's competition, and yes, there's drama. Sometimes teenagers do stupid stuff and they make mistakes, but at their heart their love for each other is kind of what carries this group through.”
Okoro Carroll noted that her ideas about unconditional friendships for these high schoolers “might be a little subconscious channeling” of her love of the original 90210, citing all of the drama the characters went through, but that “it was still that group together in front of the Hollywood sign on graduation day.”
9. Like every other TV show in Hollywood, production on All American Season 3 was delayed because of COVID-19.
Even though the timeline of the next season of All American has been affected by the coronavirus quarantine, Okoro Carroll said the writers room is still meeting remotely over Zoom.
“So we've just continued virtually, and it's sort of been amazing because with everything else happening in the world, this is something I understand and that I look forward to, hopping into that virtual writers room with my writers and all of us sort of getting to talk about these characters that we know and love and getting to plot out their futures,” she said. “It’s been such an amazing gift during these times.”
There’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding how long productions will be shut down for, but the All American showrunner said her writers are still hard at work to make sure the upcoming season is the best it can be, adding that everyone is eager to get back on set and give viewers more episodes of the show they’re now obsessed with.
“And as soon as Warner Brothers gives us that green light, we're going to have those scripts ready and we're gonna be running through the stages,” she said.