I have always been forthright about my hatred for period pieces, but so long as we remain in an era following WWI, I’m content to watch the drama unfold. American Dreams which aired on NBC Sunday nights from Fall 2002 until Spring 2005 was killed off by the sudden boom in quality that ABC programming experienced in the fall of 2004. I was in my first year of college when this program premiered, and at the time I owned a sad 13 inch RCA with built in VCR and was not inclined to stay in my dorm room any night, let alone Sundays, catching up with a show about the 1960’s. I fell in love with this show over winter break however, when my mother, its biggest proponent and a television connoisseur in her own right, forced me to give it a chance. I watched the rest of the season and the two that followed. I even boycotted Desperate Housewives when I decided it was to blame for the show’s demise. Still, I cannot enjoy it as fully as I once did, because alas, only season one is available on DVD. Last week I enjoyed all 25 episodes of that first season to the fullest though, in the Season One Extended Music Edition. (Ridiculous music licensing fees prevent DVD distribution, I think.)
American Dreams shares the story of the All-American Pryor family of Philadelphia. Father Jack (John Verica) and Mother Helen (Gail O’Grady) play traditional roles, he the TV/Radio Store owning breadwinner and she the perfect housewife. Eldest son J.J.(Will Estes) is in his senior year at East Catholic High School, where daughter, sophomore Meg (Brittany Snow) (the show’s main protagonist) is a sophomore. She is also a “regular” dancer on American Bandstand. Younger siblings Patty and Will are in elementary school. Patty, 12, is an annoying little sister type know-it-all, and Will, 7, has polio, due to the choice his parents made when he was a baby, not to have him vaccinated.
Season 1 basically introduces us to the Pryor family and those that surround them. Although most every character is stereotypical of the era, the show’s most entertaining feature is that the characters break out of of those roles before they become too trite. Jack owns a TV/Radio store, which sets the backdrop for what’s going on in the world. Characters are constantly watching TV at home and in his store, so we, the viewer, know when Kennedy is shot, when The Beatles arrive in America, when three college boys go missing in Alabama and when Philadelphia is set ablaze by the 1964 riots (according to the show). Jack and Helen butt heads about her burgeoning independence. A lifetime of being Mrs. Jack Pryor, Helen seeks to become her own woman. She begins taking “the pill” much to her husband’s chagrin, and even signs up for a college literature course (which she quits after her professor kisses her) and also goes into dicey North Philly to register voters. J.J. the football star is accepted to Notre Dame, takes the scholarship to Lehigh, breaks his ankle, loses the scholarship and enlists in the Marines (lets not forget what we know and they don’t, that the Vietnam War is about to escalate, well, to a war). He is also involved with his high school sweetheart Beth, interspersed with break-ups and hookups with a local divorcee (GASP!). Meg, the adorable protag, and her best friend Roxanne both dance on American Bandstand. Meg is always getting into trouble by following her heart, and is constantly treated unfairly by her father, whose golden boy J.J. can do no wrong, even when he and Meg are caught for the same actions. She dates the most attractive dancer from AB, Jimmy Riley and also a record store clerk from her school, Luke, whose five o’clock shadow cannot be disguised, despite the pounds of pancake makeup they continue to slap on it, plus he’s annoying as hell and unattractive to boot. She tries to befriend Sam (Jack’s employee Henry’s son, who is on a track scholarship at her HS) but because he is black, they run into nothing but problems. Long story short, this show is about the 1960’s.
Every episode features Meg and Roxanne’s day at bandstand, and usually a musical performance (which provides a lovely backdrop for a dramatic montage, in which we see every character doing whatever it is they’re doing, but we don’t have to listen to dialogue.) Musical acts from the original American Bandstand are recreated by contemporary artists, such as Usher, Michelle Branch, LeeAnn Rimes, Nick Carter etc. Also, Joseph “Whoa” Lawrence plays Michael Brooks, the producer of the program.
I don’t know why I feel the need to mention this, but the fact that it’s 1963 means that no one owns a cell phone or anything more state-of-the-art than a transistor radio, so plots can thicken in a way that they can’t when they’re set in more modern times.