NBC has had a really bad year. Yeah, I know, Earl is really popular. Whatever. One show they cancelled to make way for this year’s losing shows was American Dreams, a series unique for it’s period setting, it’s lack of cops or crime solvers, and it’s appeal to families. I think I can speak for American Dreams fans when I say “Serves you right, NBC, bunch of bums.” Or maybe not.
These days, as one viewer put it, television is dominated by “murder, reality, or crude sitcoms” – nothing for families. American Dreams was breath of fresh air. It wasn’t the greatest show on television, but it was an entertaining, engaging, original, well-written and well-acted hour drama which offered first-rate family conflicts, great period elements, a chance for us to see our own current events discussed in analogy-form, and also, some darn good music. At a point where the only family fare on TV is preachy, issue-of-the-week, scrambled cast 7th Heaven, families who like to watch TV together got shafted when this show got the shaft.
American Dreams was the story of Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) a headstrong, “typical teen” in a Catholic family in Philadelphia, in the sixties. The show was the story of her coming-of-age much the way the country was, changing in sudden, dramatic and often painful fashion. Her transformation from teenybopper obsessed with American Bandstand to politically-astute young adult set against the turbulent mid-60s was the arc of the series.
Meg’s whole family, in fact, serves a microcosm of the era, the good and the bad. Mom Helen (Gail O’Grady) decided she wanted to work outside the home but held onto her traditional Catholic faith. Meg was often at odds with dad Jack (Tom Verica) an appliance store owner who eventually became business partners with African-American Henry (Jonathan Adams) another sign of changing times. Throughout the series, Meg, Helen and Jack contended with what the changing times has done to their family which also included eldest kid J.J. (Will Estes) who enlisted and went to Vietnam (as opposed to Meg’s draft-dodging boyfriend), J.J.’s girlfriend-baby’s mama-wife who struggled with putting her aspirations on hold, a younger brainy daughter not quite into the Bandstand thing (she tried…) and a younger son, still wide-eyed with enthusiasm. Storylines also found Meg befriending Henry’s son Sam (Arlen Escarpeta) as he dealt with the realities of racism and Meg doing teen stuff with best gal pal Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) another Bandstand dancer.
Speaking of Bandstand, American Dreams put the music of the era to good use. Each episode featured a Bandstand performance, often using real clips from the 60s and juxtaposing them with blurry model. Often, American Dreams also used famous current singers in what is one of the show’s unique elements. For instance, The Duff sisters appear as the Shangra-Las, Brandy Norwood shows up as Gladys Knight. You get the drift. Others who have appeared Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Kelly Rowland, LeeAnn Rimes, Alanis Morrisette, Third Eye Blind and Fountains of Wayne. The music element gave American Dreams more multi-generational appeal.
American Dreams spent it’s last episodes up against hit sci-fi series Lost, making it clear NBC was done with the show. Maybe it’s appropriate that the series ended when Meg had pretty much become an adult. (She ran off with her boyfriend.) Fans could want more closure or more episodes, but when a coming of age story character has come of age, maybe it is better to pack it in.
Whether American Dreams could have done some business against it’s old time slot, Sunday 8PM, competition, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Cold Case on CBS, who knows? Certainly, it would have been a change from murder and reality. The West Wing hasn’t done so well, though, you can’t begrudge the Emmy-winner it’s last year. NBC, you can blame, for not sticking with American Dreams, which was also original and high quality. Fans can take comfort in the network ratings. It bears repeating: NBC, serves you right.