American Dreams: Season One
Today, if you want to see want the performers of your favorite music look lie you can simply turn on MTV and see them. When I was a kid in the late fifties and early sixties the only way to actual view performances of the popular rock groups was either the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night or Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. For thirty seven years starting in 1952 American Bandstand was the best way for popular singers and groups to get face time in front of their audiences. I remember lying on the floor of the living room watching the black and white images and tinny music as my sister and her friends danced around. Universal’s release of the first season of American Dreams brought me right back to those moments.
The show follows a middle class Catholic family, the Pryors that live in the city of Philadelphia. Eldest daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) was a typical teenage girl. She and her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) would stand in line at the open call for American Bandstand dances and when rejected rush home to watch the show on TV. Her older brother JJ (Will Estes) is a local high school football star in love with the socially upscale Beth (Rachel Boston). Rounding out the children of the Pryor clan are 12 year old Patty (Sarah Ramos), a spelling bee champ and the youngest, Will (Ethan Dampf), clad in leg braces as a result of being one of the last victims of the polo epidemic of the late fifties. The patriarch of the family is Jack (Tom Verica), owner of an electronic store and his wife Helen (Gail O'Grady).
What this show explores is not so much the music of this generation but how the family dynamic is forever altered by the turbulent events of that fateful year in history. At the end of the series pilot everyone is huddled around the glow of their televisions, President John Kennedy had just been assassinated. Watching the scene of the school children being told by the principal, eliciting gasps of tears from everyone is directly out of my memories. Its moments like this that cements an emotional connection with those of my age demographic. For our children that are watching this is a glimpse into the early experiences of their parents.
Many may initially feel that this show is just an excuse to play a lot of old music and highlight ancient TV shows. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The television is used as sort of a Greek chorus, explaining the forces at work upon the family. The Kennedy assassination was the first time in American history that the television became the complete focus for America. Now when tragedies like the fall of the World Trade towers occur we all turn to the many 24 hour cable news stations. Back then, the broadcast stations became the prototype for these full time news stations and entire families where glued to the set. The show also explores the fears that this event had on everyone, even the youngest in the family. Will has nightmares of the Russians attacking us from high tech satellites. You have to remember that this series takes place only a short time after the world was at the brink of destruction with the Cuban Missile Crisis, something that Kennedy was crediting in saving us from.
The cast is excellent, each person filling their expected roles and adding more than the usual television stereotype to their performances. True, the show is at times predictable; we’ve all seen these family members many times before. What sets the show above the pack is its interaction with the times, the years of 1963 through 1964 where perhaps the most disruptive times every. The show gives us an emotional perspective of life at the start of the civil rights movement, when prejudice was less overt than in earlier years but still a powerful force. This was also the beginning of feminism, when the housewives that took war time jobs during World War Two started to resist going back to the role of ‘just a housewife’. Meg and Helen are proto-feminist, two women facing a world where they want to explore their potential in life. Helen dares to defy her husband by aspiring to go to college, something common now but back then it was close to heresy. She also feels that four children are enough, an attitude that results in consternation not only with her husband but with the church.
Facing these changes and uncertainty is Jack, a man trying his best to make a living, provide for his family and hold on to some modicum of control. His son wants to quite football, ruining his chances for a scholarship to Notre Dame. His eldest daughter defies him by dancing on television and his wife rejects his desire to add to the family. Meg is a young girl at the verge of womanhood in the most malleable times in American history. Her best friend is boy crazy, her school and faith restrictive to the adolescent urges she is feeling and the social structure of her world was just shattered.
I did enjoy the way the various relationships within the family where set up. Meg is close to her older brother, now more as a peer than anything else. She fights constantly with Patty but when trouble is at hand Patty looks to her sister for comfort. Will is crippled before the era of political correctness. Back then every neighborhood had someone that was stricken with polio but Will is overly sensitive. JJ is a young man leaving high school just as men where being shipped to a far off place called Viet Nam.
Once again Universal shoots and scores! I have to admit I never watched this series on television but after one episode I was hooked. The full screen video is crisp and clear. The music is very important here and its great to hear these old songs again in Dolby 5.1. The series has a little gimmick of using modern pop stars to play the stars of yesterday. For example Michele Branch gives a great performance as Leslie Gore. At times the sub woofer comes on a little too strong, booming into the room. Each episode has among the extras a little text blurb of events of the time and interview of the episode’s performers directly form the American Bandstand archives. This is a show the entire family can and should enjoy together.