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American Dreams

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NBC has started running back-to-back eps of its drama/nostalgiafest, American Dreams, so we were able to catch one of the early entries in this series Sunday.

You probably already know the show’s premise even if you haven’t seen a single episode. Set around the time of JFK’s assassination (at one point, a small boy asks his mother what would happen if Dad got shot like the president), it depicts the travails of a Philadelphia Catholic family, the Pryors, as they struggle with the changing times. Wife&mother Helen (Gail O’Grady) is taking those first tentative steps toward I-Am-Womanhood; hubby Jack (Tom Verica) is reactive but ultimately goodhearted. When he learns that the son of his black employee is going to attend the same parochial school as his kids, his response is to invite the boy to the house for a palpably uncomfortable dinner.
We can tell that the black kid’ll be more prominent in the weeks ahead, since the Pryors’ younger teen daughter Patty (Sarah Ramos) is shown looking at him more than once during dinner. Elder daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) has just started making appearances as a dancer on American Bandstand (yes, Dick Clark is one of the series’ producers), so the combo of a dance show setting and a status quo tweaking relationship between black & white teens can’t help but bring up comparisons w./ John Waters’ original Hairspray. Two big differences: Waters’ low-budget comedy made light of the sort of heavy-handed earnestness Dreams is peddling – and it had a more interesting soundtrack.
The selections on the ep I watched were as predictable as a greatest hits collection. “Do You Love Me?” is a great piece of early Motown – and it stood as such when we first reheard the Contours shouting it in Dirty Dancing – but the song’s been played to death in the years since Jen Grey and Patrick Swayze first made eyes at each other. Because the series is set around the era’s big national dance show (as opposed to Hairspray‘s funky “Corny Collins Show), you can bet you won’t be hearing any of the third tier regional dance hits that made Waters’ soundtrack such a blast.
But perhaps the best indicator of the telling difference in sensitivities between the two period works is this moment from Dreams. When starstruck Meg is in the presence of the show’s hunky dancer Jimmy Riley, the two have a brief discussion of the song being played on the show, “Mashed Potato.” (First single this writer ever owned, incidentally.) How, Riley asks at one point, can such a cool sounding song have such a dopey sounding title? Hear that question and you can’t help thinking: that’s not a sixties kid asking this question – they’re the words of a screenwriter indulging in amused reminiscence. Even filtered through his own sensitivities, Waters’ teens clearly had a life of their own. All of the figures in American Dreams are mainly there to sell plot points.
I don’t remember the sixties being that schematic. . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.