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All American Celebrates 100 Episodes: Showrunner Talks Show Success

All American Celebrates 100 Episodes: Showrunner Talks Show Success

On a wall in the top corner of Nkechi Okoro Carroll‘s office hangs a photo from THR‘s 2018 Women in Entertainment issue. In it, the All American showrunner appears alongside 61 fellow Black women writers who are part of the Black Women Who Brunch group she co-founded with Lena Waithe and Erika L. Johnson in 2014 to create a network among their growing community within Hollywood. Membership has now swelled to 223 creatives at last count.

“That is the reason why I don’t feel lonely,” says Carroll, who is one of just a handful of Black women who’ve been at the helm of TV shows that have aired 100 episodes: Shonda Rhimes (Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal); Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends); Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single); Debbie Allen (A Different World). “Everyone is always so grateful to us for starting it, but it’s truly been a gift to me.”

All American, now in its sixth season, will reach that milestone May 27 with the episode “100%,” directed by series lead Daniel Ezra, who portrays football star Spencer James, a wide receiver who is plucked from Los Angeles’ South Crenshaw High School by the Golden Angeles University Condors and set down on an emotionally bumpy path to the NFL. “Superhuman” is the word Ezra uses to describe Carroll, who is also showrunner of the CW show’s spinoff All American: Homecoming and NBC’s Found.

“NK is my big sister, she’s my mentor,” says Ezra. “I don’t think we would’ve made it to 100 episodes without her. In fact, I know that we wouldn’t have.”

When Carroll landed a deal with Warner Bros. in 2018, she looked at the script for All American just as a courtesy, she says — and because Greg Berlanti was an executive producer.

“Greg had been on my vision board since I was 21 years old, working as an economist at the Federal Reserve. I was obsessed with Dawson’s Creek. I was obsessed with Brothers & Sisters. At the time, I didn’t know what a showrunner was, so I googled it and was like, ‘That’s the career I want,’ and Greg was sort of the prototype,” says Carroll, who requested a meeting with Berlanti in exchange for looking over the script. When they met, he asked Carroll to watch the pilot for the sports drama, which she reluctantly agreed to do; she had joined the studio with the intent of developing her own series.

“I watched the pilot, and I was so mad at him,” Carroll recalls with a laugh. “I walked out in the hallway, and he was like, ‘Right?’ It was just so magical. Daniel Ezra was such a star. I was bawling by the end of it. Literally 15 seasons of the show flashed before my eyes, and Greg knew that was going to happen.”

Not long after, Berlanti asked Carroll if she would take over as showrunner just as they were beginning to break out episodes. “I started thinking about what would happen if I didn’t take over the show and thought, ‘I can’t do that to such a phenomenal cast, crew, staff and this really powerful project that I believed in.’ So 9:30 a.m. the next day, I took over as showrunner.”

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Over the course of six seasons, All American has tackled several hot-button issues concerning student athletics. These have included the attempted bribes of high schoolers to procure college commitments and the season five storyline known as Bountygate, in which Olivia Baker (Samantha Logan) exposes her brother Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and a coach for incentivizing the team to injure opposing players.

“I’m actually shocked that we haven’t gotten more ‘Keep your mouth shut! Why are you talking about this? Why are you rocking the boat?’ reactions,” says Carroll. “We’ve gotten such an enthusiastic response, especially from parents of athletes who are suddenly like, ‘Oh, I get it. Now I have a better understanding of how I can support my kid through this.’ Or, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that the shift in the name, image and likeness ruling was going to do X, Y and Z until it was put that way on your show, and now we’re thinking about college differently.’ That’s all I want. I want an authentic depiction of what it looks like when our kids are pursuing these incredible dreams and what it takes to get them there.”

That was the aspect of the show that most drew in Carroll from the start. “I always say I’m never going to admit this publicly, but football ain’t really my thing, at all,” she confesses. “However, what I do understand is the pursuit of what feels like an unrealistic dream. Growing up as a young Nigerian girl in West Africa, and now running three shows and my exclusive deal, I’m not supposed to be here. So I fully understand the pursuit when everyone is telling you, ‘Find a backup plan’ or ‘It’s not realistic’ or ‘Do you know how hard it is?’ I lived that.”

The personal issues characters wrestle with off the field have deepened audiences’ connection to the series. Emotional highlights include Olivia’s ongoing sobriety journey and managing grief, with Spencer mourning his dad’s death in season two and the shocking death of coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) in season five— a decision Carroll admits was a “risk.”

“It’s Taye Diggs; it’s our lead. Coach Billy is such a loved character, but man, did the actors step up,” she says. “I lost my father in my early 20s, and I don’t think I quite realized how many members of our crew had lost fathers early in their life, so it became such a personal journey for everyone through that back half of the season.

“We had people reach out to us saying, ‘For the first time, my son and I are dealing with the passing of his father from 10 years ago because we watched the show together, and he suddenly realized he’d never dealt with his grief.’ If that’s the only email I ever get,” Carroll adds, “I did my job.”

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Watching the Vortex, as Spencer’s group of friends call themselves, navigate these scenarios is what made repeated season renewals and the most recent decision to extend season six from 13 to 15 episodes quite simple for Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Channing Dungey. “It’s these characters,” she says. “I’m so invested in their relationships and the journey that they’ve been on, and that always makes it easy to say yes.”

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Behind the scenes. Carroll tends to the young actors of the show as delicately as she does their storylines, says co-star Logan. “She ultimately has protected us from some really big things. Even in terms of styling my hair. I’ve worked on a lot of shows where they want me to look a certain way and she’s been like, ‘No, do whatever you want,’ and that’s been so liberating for me as a Black actress to play with my hair and learn about myself and how I want to present as my natural self. I don’t think I would’ve had that [onscreen] opportunity otherwise.”

Considerations like that aren’t something that Carroll says she does on purpose, but rather they’re extensions of her experience and an understanding of the small things that instill confidence in people to do their best work.

“The thing that Daniel and I talk about the most in terms of whenever this show is done is that the legacy is going to be the impact it had on the lives of the people who were on the show who got to achieve their dreams or firsts,” says Carroll. “Daniel went from actor to director. We’ve had gaffers become DPs. We’ve had DPs become directors. We’ve had assistants climb all the way up to producers and directors. When we look back at what we were able to accomplish internally and the direct impact the show’s had in people’s lives, we couldn’t ask for more.”

Still, making it to 100 episodes doesn’t quite yet feel real, Carroll admits. “It’s one of the reasons why I wrote the 100th episode. I decided I have to be there, especially with Daniel directing. There were so many moments of us sitting on the football field and on set together, and we would just look at each other like, ‘Holy cow, we really made it here.’ ”

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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