Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is deeply relieved that she's not the only person to visualize her own life as a black-and-white movie from the '50s. Oh, wait, this show is fiction, not biography. Err... never mind.
Judith: Martin, I want you to sign those [divorce] papers.
The innovative comedy and cult favorite Dream On finally makes it to DVD. Executive produced by John Landis and starring Brian Benben (Radioland Murders) and Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me), Dream On is a series with special appeal for those who grew up on a diet of old movies and classic television. This five-disc package includes the complete first two seasons, uncut and in the form in which they were originally aired on HBO in 1990-1991.
Facts of the Case
Martin Tupper (Benben), a book editor who once dreamed of being a writer, has a little trouble accepting reality. From an early age, the television was his babysitter, so he tends to view the world through the window of old B movies and early TV shows—but his life keeps refusing to conform to those comfortable story conventions. He doesn't want to accept that his ex-wife, Judith (Malick), has found happiness with a new love, the impossibly perfect Dr. Richard Stone, and that his son (Chris Demetral) actually gets along well with his future stepfather. Even though his best friend, successful talk show host Eddie Charles, enjoys playing the field, Martin is a romantic: Although he tests the romantic waters with great thoroughness, at heart he still hopes that he'll find another woman like Judith.
Dream On is probably most vividly remembered for its signature gimmick: the clips from old movies and black-and-white TV shows that indicate what's going on in Martin's mind. According to Landis's introduction to this collection, the idea arose when he tried to find a way to get some use out of Universal's library of otherwise unusable film and television properties. It's a technique that has a lot of charm, especially for film fans: Besides being a clever way to convey Martin's mental state, it creates an old-fashioned frame of reference that shows why Martin is never quite in synch with modern-day reality. Plus, it's fun to see familiar faces in the clips: Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Peter Lorre, Jane Wyman, Vincent Price—there's a lot of fun to be had here simply by celebrity watching. One might think that this gimmick would get old after a few episodes, but the writers keep it fresh by using it in different ways. Sometimes clips gain in humor from being taken out of context, as when a discussion of condoms launches a clip in which cowboys discuss wearing (one presumes) spurs. At other times, the clips show the violent response Martin would like to make to a real-life challenge but cannot. And sometimes they're just funny because they are so quaintly old-fashioned or melodramatic in contrast to modern life.
Of course, if Dream On had nothing more to sustain it than this gimmick, it wouldn't have lasted beyond one season, and fortunately it has many other merits. Its cast is one of them: Benben is engaging and amiable as the protagonist, which is particularly crucial since he could easily become unsympathetic to female viewers due to his endless succession of sexual escapades. Benben is able to keep Martin likable in a hapless, everyman kind of way, so we never stop hoping he'll find happiness. As the woman he can't quite let go of, Wendie Malick is warmly intelligent; she's such an appealing presence that when she doesn't appear in an episode, it feels incomplete. Malick is given a great opportunity to shine in the final episode of Season One, which depicts Judith panicking on the eve of her marriage to Richard. The character of Toby, Martin's antagonistic secretary and one of the main sources of friction in his life, is perfectly portrayed by Denny Dillon. Her brassy, outspoken belligerence keeps Martin from becoming too sanguine and provides some enjoyably tart moments. The role of Martin's best friend, Eddie, was played by standup comedian Jeff Joseph in Season One, then replaced with the slightly more boyish Dorien Wilson at the start of Season Two. Both are charismatic actors in the role and make the unrepentant player a likable guy.
The writing and directing in the series are also strengths. Writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane, who departed after launching the show to create a little trifle called Friends, established a dryly witty, briskly paced pattern that carried through after their departure. The plots almost never feel thin or stretched out, and there's a frankness to the writing that raises it above network sitcoms. The characters actually discuss condoms and AIDS testing, they occasionally smoke a joint, and they get to use four-letter words like actual grownups instead of foolish network-mandated compromises. Another way the show pushes the boundaries is by incorporating nudity into the sitcom format…or, more specifically, breasts; the good old-fashioned double standard is definitely in play here. Nevertheless, by breaking out of the sitcom mold in these ways—and, equally important, by dispensing with the use of a laugh track—Dream On changed the face of the sitcom and began to give it a certain maturity, paving the way for later shows like Sex and the City. That doesn't mean the show isn't sometimes silly, but it does mean that there's no sense of its dumbing itself down to meet broadcast standards.
Each of the first two seasons comprises 14 episodes, including the double-length second-season opener ("The Second Greatest Story Ever Told"), which is one of the most memorable episodes. Its clever plot makes the most of Martin's characteristic difficulty reconciling reality and fantasy by involving him and Judith in the filming of a biopic on her now-husband, Richard. Martin falls hard for the actress portraying Judith (Mimi Rogers, Ginger Snaps), going so far as to give her acting tips to increase her resemblance to his ex-wife, and inevitably the past begins to repeat itself. Besides being sharply plotted, this episode is distinguished by a wealth of guest stars, including David Bowie as a vitriolic director, and celebrity cameos, including Sylvester Stallone and Eva Gabor. In a particularly classy gambit, it features appearances by Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) and Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island) juxtaposed with footage from an old movie in which they starred together. These are the moments that old movie lovers live for.
Other memorable episodes include "Angst for the Memories" (Season One), in which Martin revives his old ambition of becoming a writer and pens a play based on his marriage to Judith—which gets considerably changed when a local theater company produces it; and "The 37-Year Itch" (Season Two), in which Toby goes on a date with Martin's cousin (played by Dan Castellaneta of The Simpsons). The scene in which they perform a tap dance musical number is not to be missed. "And Your Little Dog, Too" is another standout episode in the second season, both for the first guest appearance of Michael McKean (A Mighty Wind) as Martin's sleazy new boss and for its more serious plot about a rift in Martin and Eddie's long-standing friendship. At its best, the series combines its frothy humor with a strong emotional underpinning, and episodes like these balance the two elements effectively.
Audiovisual quality is largely solid for this set: Colors are true in the visual transfer, which is agreeably clean and crisp. The 5.1 surround mix reveals some buzz in early episodes, but this has disappeared by the end of the first season, and otherwise sound is clear and nicely balanced. The main surprise here is the dearth of extras. Landis's introduction is a welcome enhancement to the set, offering as it does information about the birth and development of the show—but that's it? Considering that it runs less than seven minutes and is padded with clips, it scarcely seems sufficient. Some commentaries or a making-of featurette would have been very welcome, especially since there must be a lot of inside information to share on the making of this show. I'd love to hear from the people in charge of gleaning the clips to be used. Was there a team who did nothing but comb the vaults for footage they felt could be used somewhere? Did the writers find inspiration from the clips, or did they have to find appropriate footage to supplement their script for a show? There must be lots of nifty anecdotes about the creative process, but we get nada.
On the plus side, even though there's no printed episode guide, the menu on each disc offers an episode index, which allows you to select an episode to read its synopsis and learn its original air date. This is a nice touch, and it makes me feel a bit less cranky about the paucity of extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its charm, Dream On seems to be specifically geared toward the male demographic. Martin is appealing to women, to be sure, but while male viewers may vicariously revel in the constant rotation of hotties in his bed, the female viewer may come to feel that he's a bit of a slut. Sure, we know he's really looking for romance and true love, but a bit more focus on Wendie Malick's character, a bit less screen time for the amour du jour, would have been welcome. I wearied of the constant parade of guest breasts—nearly every guest girlfriend has a topless scene, and sometimes casual bystanders do as well. If you concocted a drinking game whereby you drank a shot every time a woman takes off her blouse, you'd be unconscious well before the end of Season One. The distinction between stretching the boundaries of the sitcom format and capitalizing on gratuitous titillation began to blur a little bit here.
On a less stuffy note, it's irritating that there's no chapter stop after the opening credits. That pert, lively theme music starts to get a bit aggravating after a dozen episodes.
Even though it occasionally confuses naughtiness with maturity, Dream On remains a funny, entertaining, and innovative show that has aged well. Fans of the series should definitely snap up this collection; if you've only seen the show in syndication, where its racier content was trimmed to meet network standards of propriety, the restored content may put some hair on your chest.
This court looks kindly on dreamers, whatever their misdeeds. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Executive Producer John Landis
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