Great television can be many things. It can be high art, and it can also be the comfort binge watch you need in the moment but forget about the next day. No matter the genre or the caliber of the show, though, all great television contains truths about the human experience.
I have always been partial to teen dramas. Now, you may be thinking — “but, Lucy, those are the least realistic things ever!” I hear you. It is true that while I love a show like Friday Night Lights, Gossip Girl, or even Outer Banks, I did not go to high school with an unreasonably attractive 30 year old drunk, have a boyfriend trade me for a hotel, or stumble my way onto 400 million in gold. However, no one would watch shows if they did not speak to the lives we lead. Each of these shows brings elements — be it the heart of a small town, a desire to be popular, or a close-knit group of friends — that we can relate to.
One of the buzziest teen dramas right now is All American. While it first airs on The CW (a network famous for its soapy teen dramas), shortly after, seasons are brought to Netflix. This is where the show really shines. In the last week of July, All American was the top-rated show on Nielsen’s streaming ratings with 1.43 billion minutes of watch time. 1.43 BILLION! In one week. Talk about cultural power.
Now most of the time, cultural power like this goes unnoticed, because it isn’t being harnessed. That’s where All American sets itself apart. Is it soapy teen television? Yes. However, it also honestly addresses race and class relations in America. It is loosely based off the life of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, who grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, but went to high school in Beverly Hills for football. Considering that it is about football, and has run throughout the Black Lives Matter era, it focuses heavily on police brutality and #TakeaKnee, Colin Kaepernick’s protest movement. I shouldn’t forget to mention that it also discusses urban planning, gentrification, and the psychological toll navigating two different worlds takes on a person, among many other things.
What I love best about this show is two-fold. First, it moves past “grappling” with these issues, which is common in pop culture. Often, shows “grapple” with things by simply bringing them up. However, in All American, the characters are shown using real movement organizing tactics to address their problems — planning together, considering pushing for change from within or outside a system, making signs, holding vigils, protesting, podcasting, and talking with their friends. Second, it never tries to be something that it is not. It does not pretend to be a documentary, or high art. It remains, at its core, a teen soap.
It accomplishes these two seemingly different goals by recognizing that honestly reflecting the lives of teens today means taking up the issues that affect them. Sometimes, that is relationship drama, and sometimes it is structural inequality. We all lead nested lives. Being a teenager in the 21st century is multifaceted and may include both making out and making movements. I congratulate The CW on realizing that. (Don’t worry though, we haven’t come too far… the teen trope continues, and there is not a whole lot of homework happening here.)
It left me thinking — what’s more All American than climate change? Historically, we are the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. We see climate devastation in the news almost daily. How is this not a truth that we see reflected in more of our pop culture? Now, we certainly have some documentaries and climate specific art, which is important. However, climate change now affects our everyday life, and should thus affect every genre. Where is our crime procedural that races to solve the mystery before coastal erosion destroys the evidence? Where is our ensemble sitcom about a group of pipeline protesters? Where is our teen drama, a la All American, where school strikes for climate are a common setting for romance?
We deserve all that and more. In the meantime, give All American a watch and imagine the possibilities television holds. While you do that, we’ll be busy working on some scripts to pitch to the networks 🙂