Thursday, September 15, 2011

American Dreams -- Deeper, Better (And Darker) Than The Bubble Gum Nostalgia It Appeared To Be

During it's run on NBC from September 2002 to May 2005, American Dreams didn't establish itself as a cultural icon of 1960's nolstagia or, even as a bona fide hit show. That it didn't achieve this status isn't shocking because so few TV shows do.  What is surprising is that American Dreams didn't get closer.  This show should have been missed more when it went off the air and should have been more fondly remembered since then.  It had a devotion to genuine period authenticity matched by very few shows in the history of television.  It's cast was strong and it's arc based stories were compelling and even suspenseful.  Family drama occured against the nostalgaic, but fairly accurately  portrayed, backdrop of the unfolding of a number real and pivotal events in American history including the rise of Civil Rights, the anti Viet Nam War movement, feminism, and an overall changing value system of Americans.  Additionally, it's key plot device of having the main protaganist as a dancer on American Bandstand allowed for the very effective use of early 1960's music as an evocative soundtrack to (and sometimes a metaphor for), what was happening with the characters and the world around them in a very authentic way.  I really looked forward to watching this show every week and I often wondered (even during it's run, as a lack of water cooler buzz developed) why there weren't more people like me.  In retrospect, it may have been that this show was simply too heavy (in contrast to it's apparently bubble gum American Bandstand driven key plot device) for a post 9/11 America to take comfort in.  Americans were expecting to tune into a slightly more updated Happy Days and they got a coming of age version of Hill Street Blues instead (well, not quite, but you get the idea).

Expectations were high: Variety in this review of the pilot said "With the emotional tug of "Wonder Years" presented with the production values of "The West Wing," "Dreams" should follow "Wing," "The Sopranos" and "24" as stellar shows that live up to the promise of its pilot." But there was also skepticism that the gimmicky period plot device revolving around American Bandstand would overshadow any attempt at real attempt at drama as reflected in this New York Times review  In the end, over a modestly successful 3 year run, it gave viewers an evocative (though not always pleasant) view into an American family that, incredibly, many of us seemed to be able to identify with despite the fact it took place during a time many of us weren't yet born. The key plot device in the show revolved around 15 year old protagonist Meg Pryor, who danced on American Bandstand in the local Philadelphia Studio from which it was produced and broadcast in 1962. Meg was the 2nd oldest child of the Philadelphia Irish Catholic lower middle class Pryor clan while high school football star JJ was the oldest, and bookish and too clever sister Patty was 12, while polio stricken, leg brace wearing youngest brother Will (maybe this character went over the line with an overly easy reach for time period based pathos) was the youngest.

Meg represents the America of the period. She is the optimistic, wide eyed, pretty girl next door looking for more (though she isn't quite sure what more is). She also seems poised to lose some of her innocence as she reaches out into the big, adventurous (and sometimes bad) world outside of her traditional family's orbit.  Here, the use of the American Bandstand plot device and it's connection to rock and roll music has it's most important metaphorical role -- the world is getting more provactive and at the same time more dangerous.  How did those unkempt, rebellous Beatles replace Pat Boone and what are all those white kids doing listening to Marvin Gaye?

Her personality lays in stark contrast to her father, appliance store owner Jack and offers a hint of what transformative pressures will impact her traditional housewife mother Helen.  The world is poised to change around the family and Jack seems least prepared to handle it, let alone embrace it while Helen feels a pull into a new social consciousness (feminism, anti-war movement) that seems to offer a risk reward proposition for her that isn't quite compelling enough to go all in, at once.

There is also a jarring contrast between the Pryor household and the Walker household (the other major family whose life is chronicled in the show).  Henry Walker is Jack Pryor's de facto store manager at the Pryor's appliance store (Pryor's Radio and TV).  He is an African American man with a teenage son, Sam, who is Meg's age and a wife Gwen who is also a housekeeper employed outside the home.  Sam ultimately wins an athletic scholarship to East Catholic High School (where the Pryor kids go to school) while Gwen dies of cancer during the second season.  America, when the viewer walks in the Walker's (no pun intended) shoes is a far less idealistic world.  It is a racist world that is often unfair and can be a bit frightening.  Henry wants more for his family, but isn't of the mindset to demand what he deserves.  While his boss, Jack Pryor, is a fair man by objective standards for the time, Jack needs to be pulled kicking and screaming by the changing forces of the time to treat Henry as a true equal.  This isn't the stuff of bubble gum nostalgia.  Everybody isn't always happy.

Now, there have been numerous family oriented TV shows that have used nostalgia as a plot device (in my TV watching lifetime, I would argue Wonder Years was the best example, particularly for the 1960's loss of innocence element).  However, many other examples exist from the traditional family sitcom (Happy Days) to the slapstick (Laverne and Shirley, etc.) to the dark (most recently Madmen).  There have also been shows where nostalgia was almost referential (Family Ties, for example, where reference, particularly in the earlier episodes, was made to a hippie counter culture in the context of the contemporary Regan era, made some viewers long for a time less materialistic and gave some a reason to be glad that bygone era had passed).

But in retrospect the power of plotlines and the constant conflict encountered by the protagonsits combined with production values and it's deep authenticity of detail, gave American Dreams a real edge relative to some of those others (even the ones that were great "hits").   The Bandstand set (and the extraordinary integration of authentic scenes from bands that appeared on the show at the time) is most obvious.  But the scenes of Jack Pryor's appliance store with just the right models of TV's, the home furnishings, the wardrobe, etc.were also dead on.

More than just a realism to the time time period, there was a realism to the socio economic realities of the protagonists lives.  There was a gritty, almost darkness to the atmosphere -- they weren't middle class in the traditional 1960's TV way.  They wanted (and sometimes needed) what they didn't have, in both material and metaphysical ways.  While there was a quaint and homey feeling to life at the Pryor house, there was also an element of realism that is often absent from the nostalgia plot device in other shows.  In some of the holiday episodes that take place during the winter season, for instance, there is a clear sense of family bonding that was such comfort food in our age of isolation and cynicism about such sentimental times.  However, there is an evocation of chill in the house (not so much emotional, but physical) that is striking -- the family in their sweaters walking around the house, literally trying to stay warm in a poorly insulated home of it's time.  There is not complaining around it, just a clear sense of atmosphere.  It's cold and it's almost dark. 

Other examples of the realistic darkness are that Sam Walker encounters real, uabashed racial bias when he transfers to Meg's white, private parochial school on scholarship.  On a more universal note, Meg loses her virginity to the "bad boy" after being somewhat duped by him.  In an homage to both feminsm and the anti-war movement Helen uses her new outside the home job (and independence) at a travel agency to help young men dodge the draft in contrast to what husband Jack thinks she ought to be doing.  Even young Will isn't immune to darkness as it's unclear whether the Pryor family will be able to raise the funds to pay for his polio reversing surgery (in the end the charity March of Dimes is their only savior).  Finally  JJ's perilous journey through Viet Nam and his post traumatic stress after returning home was portrayed with great intensity.  I loved all these plot lines and they were so well done, with each week feeling like a cliff hanger (the anti Law and Order).   But all this powerful and sometimes dark drama, was constant reminder to viewers that this wasn't the Wonder Years

Further, there was an overhang or element of a zero sum game in the advances that the Walker family makes in contrast to the Pryor family.  It's not cut and dry, but rather very subtle.  It's not exactly that the Walker family (as a proxy for the African American class) will see advancement at the expense of the Pryor's (as a proxy for lower middle class whites).  But rather, it feels as if the Jack Pryor's is giving away some of the upside he has always kept for himself as he offers Henry his "fair share".  Jack gives Henry a piece of the profits in a exchange for staying to manage a second store rather than lose Henry, who is tempted to take a loan made available from a nascent community development group to open a new store in his own African American neighborhood.  Jack begrudgingly gives Henry a piece of the action to maintain the status quo.  But Henry isn't staying simply for opportunity to stay partners with Jack or out of loyalty -- he is somewhat ambivalent about the risk of opening a store himself and relying on the nascent community based funding (tyed subtly to the African American Muslim movement) that would enable him to strike out on his own in business.

With such great story lines, actors, acting and production values, what could have gone wrong?  Perhaps it's biggest problem was simply that it was too blunt -- a bit too dark in the shadows of 9/11 when Americans needed a bit less realism about the issues of a middle class Irish Catholic family in an early 1960's America that seemed to be a tinderbox set to explode into mayhem as the decade progressed. For my part, I liked the dark undertones and the real depth, though it made even me a bit uncomfortable. For the average viewer, maybe there was simply too much discontent for a Sunday night, despite the back drop of classic early 1960's music. In other words, American Dreams' failure to resonate as a attractive destination for viewers to visit at 9PM on Sunday nights from 2002-2005 may not have been the failure of the American Bandstand/Music plot device so much as the heavy handedness with which the show presented the angst of changing society ultimately failed to make this show click. It was a bait and switch of sorts, but I prefered the switch.

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