New series aims high.
by Mark D. Johnson
October 25, 2002
Sundays, 8/7c on NBC
Ahh, the Sixties… it’s rare to see a period setting in network drama these days, so we should appreciate when an above average example like “American Dreams” comes along. Historical dramas have a lot of potential, but recapturing a bygone era for the small screen can be expensive to produce, which is perhaps why this NBC show looks back to the early sixties, a nostalgic time for many, and a setting which has proven successful in several movies in recent years. “American Dreams” may cover familiar ground, but it’s a fun, yet thoughtful look back at a critical time in American history – the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination.
The Executive Producer of “American Dreams,” Dick Clark, perhaps hoping to be remembered for more than game shows and blooper reels, has finally found a way to bring back good ol’ “American Bandstand,” the rock ‘n’ roll dance show that got its start in Philadelphia in the early sixties. The main focus of “Dreams” is on 15-year-old Meg Pryor, who manages to become a regular dancer on the show with her best friend. It’s the perfect excuse to include all kinds of golden oldies on the soundtrack, but the directing trick that shows the original black-and-white “Bandstand” clip through the television camera monitor with the celebrity performers out of focus in front of the camera at the studio has already been overdone. Innocent Meg is just starting to date, as the world around her becomes more exciting and complex.
She’s the oldest daughter of the Pryors, a middle-class Catholic family of six. Jack Pryor is the well-meaning-but-dominant father struggling to maintain tight control of his house. His wife Helen is having notions of higher education, and teenage son, J.J., resents the pressure put on him by his dad to play football at Notre Dame. A preteen son and daughter round out the clan, giving us a glimpse of their young learning experience as well.
An interesting recurring theme foreshadows the civil rights battles of a turbulent decade. Jack is a television shop owner with a black employee, Henry, whom he respects but does not socialize with. Henry’s son has just received a sports scholarship at the overwhelmingly white Catholic high school the Pryor teens attend. We’ve seen such portrayals of racial tension from this era many times before, but it still carries a much weight. I look forward to the future development of this storyline.
In general, “American Dreams” achieves much of what it sets out to do. It looks great, sounds great, and viewers willing to overlook similarities to other shows and films will likely enjoy the show. It’s sort of an “I’ll Fly Away” meets “The Wonder Years” meets “American Idol” thing. Though there is an early and unnecessary tendency to introduce three subplots per episode, this is a nostalgia trip worth taking – even if you’re under 30. Its good ratings have prompted NBC to order a full season of episodes.