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'American Dreams' lives up to the hype

Sunday, September 29, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

All those glossy, evocative promos with the swelling music have done a great job selling NBC's "American Dreams" as a want-to-see show. In some respects, tonight's premiere lives up to the hype.

"American Dreams"

When: 8 tonight on NBC

Starring: Gail O'Grady, Tom Verica

The show looks slick, the attention to detail is painstaking and the music inspires toe tapping. A future episode made available for review is less slick (that element often slacks off after the pilot) but has more realistic plotting, something missing from tonight's premiere.

Set in Philadelphia in 1963, "American Dreams" is the story of the Pryor family, and in some respects it seems totally of its period. Patriarch Jack "Because I Said So" Pryor (Tom Verica) rules his roost with an old-fashioned iron fist. In Jack's world, some subjects aren't fit for dinner table conversation in an era when dinner table conversation still existed.

When his wife, Helen (Gail O'Grady), wants to take college classes instead of having another baby, he takes it as a personal affront.

Actually, Jack takes just about everything as an affront. He squabbles constantly with his two oldest children. JJ (Will Estes) wants to quit the football team, and Meg (Brittany Snow) wants to dance on "American Bandstand" with her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies). Jack barks "No!" to both of his children, but they defy him anyway.

At least his youngest kids behave. Patty (Sarah Ramos) may be irritating -- in the pilot she spells every big word she hears; in another episode she puts labels on much of the contents of the Pryor home -- but she listens to orders. Little Will (Ethan Dampf), who wears a leg brace because of polio, is sensitive and obedient.

But it's the defiant, older children who will be the focus of the series, especially Meg's weekly visits to the set of "Bandstand" (Dick Clark is one of the executive producers of "Dreams").

So far, so good, right? As much as the show gets many period details right, some things it gets really wrong. Meg is a good girl, and no '60s good girl would undress to swap clothes with her more worldly friend while waiting at a bus stop or on board the bus. It's a moment that rings false.

An upcoming episode is more accurate given the way the Meg character is presented. When rumors start swirling around her Catholic school that she "went all the way" with a producer to get on "Bandstand," Meg is horrified.

That same episode deals with the fallout from the assassination of President Kennedy (one of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink elements in the pilot). Will sees a news report about the Kennedy family's personal effects being removed from the White House. He plaintively asks his mom, "If somebody shoots Dad, will we have to move?"

Jack owns and operates a store that sells radios and television sets, and future episodes will explore the Civil Rights era through Jack's employee Henry (Pittsburgh native Jonathan Adams) and his son, Sam (Arlen Escarpeta), who begins attending the same school as Jack's kids.

In an upcoming episode, Jack invites Sam over for dinner. Though he's worked for Jack for eight years, Henry doesn't know where Jack lives.

"There's definitely a wall between the two of them," Adams said following a July NBC press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "It's got to be that way, because that's the way it was in Philadelphia in 1963, in Pittsburgh in 1963 and in Pittsburgh in 2002 sometimes."

Adams said his character is not a radical, and the deference he shows to his white boss may catch flak from some viewers. But he said it's an attempt to be true to the era.

"We're going to find a way to show the changes in the cultural landscape through these characters' lives," Adams said. "The two families are definitely parallel. You cannot tell a story about the '60s without having a family in it that is African-American, because that was a tremendous leap forward culturally for my people."

Additional cast members include Virginia Madsen, as a budding feminist who befriends Helen, and an almost unrecognizable Joseph Lawrence as a "Bandstand" producer who takes an interest in Meg.

The show's theme song, "Generation," performed by Emerson Hart of Tonic, perfectly fits the tone of "American Dreams," a family drama that has the potential for as much drama as the decade it chronicles.


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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