Universal // 2002 // 1094 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Lacey Worrell (Retired) // October 6th, 2004
One family's journey through the times that changed our nation.
This is the single best show on television you're not watching. Come on, people!
American Dreams is the story of Jack Pryor's (Tom Verica, Providence) family, a large, close-knit, middle-class Catholic family coming of age in early 1960s Philadelphia. The pilot episode begins with a glimpse into what life was like before the tragic shooting of John F. Kennedy, and it concludes with his assassination.
Story lines center around teenage Meg (Brittany Snow, Guiding Light) and her desire to be accepted by her peers as well as by the producers of Amercian Bandstand, where she is hired as a dancer and begins a fledgling romance with one of the main dancers. She is torn between him and the offbeat, subversive clerk in the local record store, who looks down on the candy-coated songs Meg adores. To illustrate the growing racial tension of the decade, the comfortable life of the Pryor family is shown in parallel to the life of Henry, an African American employee of Jack's TV store.
The Pryor family dinner table is the site of much discussion, from political ideas to schoolwork to social ills. Meg's mother (Gail O'Grady, NYPD Blue) wants to be a dutiful Catholic wife, but she is entranced with the idea of the freedom a college education and birth control pills provide. Patty, Meg's freakishly intelligent younger sister, views the events of the time through different eyes from Meg's more innocent, concrete manner of thinking. Jack is obsessed with oldest child J.J.'s entry into Notre Dame on a full football scholarship, but by the end of the season J.J. has a surprise in store that alters the structure of the family forever.
Throughout the strife and change brought on by Kennedy's assassination, Meg continues to dance away the afternoons on Bandstand with her troubled friend, Roxanne, where she encounters famous music stars of the time.
Currently into its third season, American Dreams has garnered attention for the stunt casting of real-life stars in the roles of authentic musical performers on the show. Episodes have included the likes of Usher, Nick Lachey, Alex Band of The Calling, Kelly Clarkson, Hilary Duff, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's a nice diversion, but the real appeal of the show is its incredible quality.
What could have turned into a precious, nostalgic show about American Bandstand's heyday becomes an engrossing social commentary on race, class, and war as Season One unfolds. No topic is taboo here, yet the handling of it is subtle. When Sam, Henry's son, comes to the Pryor household to meet Jack's children, the sense of unease between the races is palpable, even though little is said. (Later, in Season Two, Sam and Meg develop a friendship with hints of sexual tension but nothing overt...yet). To add to social disparity, J.J. works as a waiter at the country club where his girlfriend's wealthy family are members.
American Dreams proves that a prime-time drama does not have to focus on attorneys or forensic scientists in order to be a great show. This show is incredibly multilayered, with several plot lines running at once and some of the smoothest transitions I've ever seen. The music is just as important as the characters, and each episode closes with a song that not only wraps up the episode but also builds suspense for what is to come in the future. Music is used to complement, never to manipulate. Just watch the final scenes of the pilot as the plaintive lyrics of "A Change is Gonna Come" play, and you will know what I am talking about.
Every member of the cast, from the youngest children right up to the more experienced actors, is amazing. Brittany Snow conveys just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and steely defiance, Tom Verica is moving as Meg's formidable father, and as Sam, Arlen Escarpeta is at once stoic and awkward as any teenager trying to become a man might be.
The overall quality of this DVD is excellent. The picture is bright and colorful, and the sound is good. The original episodes have been recut to feature longer musical performances, which is a welcome addition. Also of note are the Time Capsules that are provided with each episode to give the viewer a sense of what was going on in the world at the time; this feature also underscores the painstaking research that goes into this show. There is also a 30-minute documentary with NBC's Brian Williams, taking a look back at the years 1963-4, and there are three audio commentaries featuring the cast and Dick Clark. And although the black-and-white picture is grainy, extra scenes from original Bandstand episodes are a must-see.
You can't go wrong with a combination of quality writing, careful acting, and painstaking set and costume design, not to mention the nostalgic footage of original Bandstand episodes. The next time someone complains to you about the lack of quality television to be found today, tell them about this show.
DVD Verdict readers are sentenced to mandatory viewing of American Dreams! And while you're at it, pick up this great collection of first-season episodes.
Review content copyright © 2004 Lacey Worrell; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1094 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Retrospective Documentary
* Audio Commentaries on Three Episodes with Cast Members and Dick Clark
* Music Video
* Time Capsules