|The 2002 first season of American Dreams introduced one of the more ambitious new dramas on a major television network since the debut of The West Wing. Deceptively nostalgic, American Dreams looks, at first blush, like a bone tossed to baby boomers who remember black and white TV, American Bandstand, and what class they were in when word spread of JFK's assassination. But the more one watches the show, the more apparent it becomes that American Dreams is not about memories but about bringing a pivotal chapter in 20th century U.S. history to life--sometimes electrifyingly so.
The series pilot, set just before and on the day of Kennedy's murder, introduces Philadelphia family the Pryors, white, middle-class Catholics whose stern but not undiscerning patriarch, Jack (Tom Verica), gets an earful one night over dinner. Eldest son J.J. (Will Estes), a star running back at high school and candidate for a Notre Dame football scholarship, announces he's leaving the sport, feeling unappreciated for his mind and inspired by Kennedy's outreach to young people. Teenage daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) allows that she'll be dancing on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Jack's wife, Helen (Gail O'Grady), later lets fly that she's moving on from her boring book club to spend time with a new friend, a feminist academic (Virginia Madsen), and strongly hints that she's done with adding more babies to their brood of four. The times are indeed a-changin' for the Pryors--who have chugged along on WWII vet Jack's fiercely protected vision of picket fences, cooperative kids, and a wife who doesn't upset his equilibrium with needs of her own. But the rest of the country is changing, too, and American Dreams captures--with subtle precision--the erosion of comfortable assumptions at the onset of the Vietnam war, the escalation of the civil rights movement, the British Invasion, reproductive rights for women, and much else.
The series flows, often with stylish splendor, between the Pryors' home, the Bandstand studio set, and Jack's retail television and radio shop, where Jack's sole employee, an African American father, Henry (Jonathan Adams), wonders silently about the options a racist society will offer his talented son, Sam (Arlen Escarpeta). Wordlessness is a hallmark of American Dreams: An exchanged look between Meg and Sam is shattering testimony to the confusion of racial prohibitions among well-meaning kids. Part of every show finds historical reenactments of '60s musical acts appearing on Bandstand, and sometimes these artists are played by contemporary musicians such as Nick Carter (as Jay of Jay and the Americans) and Third Eye Blind (as the Kinks). This boxed set includes real Bandstand clips that are contemporaneous with the series' timeline. --Tom Keogh