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TV Preview: 'American Dreams' looks like family hour staple

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With The WB's "7th Heaven" running on creative fumes, NBC's freshman drama "American Dreams" emerges as the best choice for viewers in search of a quality family drama.

Set in the early 1960s after the assassination of President Kennedy, the nostalgia-fueled series provides a warm, fuzzy viewing experience for both baby boomers and members of the Millennial Generation.

"American Dreams" focuses on the Roman Catholic Pryor family of Philadelphia. Unyielding patriarch Jack Pryor (Tom Verica) runs an electronics store while wife Helen (Gail O'Grady) tends to the home front while taking a college course.

Their children include football star son JJ (Will Estes), "American Bandstand"-dancing daughter Meg (Brittany Snow), precocious Patty (Sarah Ramos) and polio-stricken Will (Ethan Dampf).

In recent decades, primetime family dramas have a poor track record. For every "Gilmore Girls" success, there are three "Against the Grain" failures.

"Dreams" creator Jonathan Prince said family dramas died because the genre was co-opted by sitcoms in the '80s.

"They owned the world of telling stories about families that dramas gave up," Prince said in a phone interview this week. "We began doing medical, cop and lawyer shows and now forensics shows. Even 'Providence' has a franchise, which is medicine."

"American Dreams"

When: 8 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Tom Verica, Gail O'Grady.

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Music will evolve as 'Dreams' does


Like Brenda Hampton, creator of "7th Heaven," Prince came to write a family drama after working on sitcoms, including "Blossom" and Fox's "Ask Harriet" and "Pauly."

"I fled from the world of sitcoms with my hair on fire," Prince joked. While writing a sitcom script three years ago, Prince began to wonder why a character never comments on how funny other characters in the show are. "The sitcom artifice is everybody is clever, and I realized I wanted to just write about what I know best: people who aren't funny."

After Prince wrote a contemporary family drama pilot for ABC that never made it to air, NBC executives approached him about creating a period family drama. On the face of it, that might seem like a suicide mission ratings-wise, but Prince had a plan.

"It wasn't a secret that family dramas didn't work, that period dramas didn't work," he said. His plan was to shoot "American Dreams" like a medical or cop show with 70 quick scenes per hour instead of the typical 40 slower scenes.

In addition, Meg's dancing on "American Bandstand" -- Dick Clark is an executive producer on "American Dreams" -- allowed another entry point for young viewers. By casting contemporary music artists (Michelle Branch, Usher, Nick Carter, Ashanti) as famous singers of the '60s, "American Dreams" has a promotional tool for wooing advertiser-friendly young viewers.

"You don't want the guest star to drive the show ever, you always want it to be a great dessert, a reward for having dinner," Prince said. "[Last week] adults watched and said, 'That's Marvin Gaye.' Kids said, 'That's Usher.' That's two portals of entry into the same scene. Plus, I know teens will be curious to know what that era was like for their parents."

That tactic appears to be working. A survey of 1,000 teenagers by online marketing firm ElectricArtists found that teens were most excited about "Dreams" and ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" among all new fall series.

"It was important to pick a period that felt relevant today to adults and teens," Prince said. "I did not want a show that reached only baby boomers. We have a growing and loyal teen audience."

Another difference from most period dramas: "American Dreams" isn't about a family of radicals, about the disenfranchised who led the '60s revolution. It's about a blue-collar family and a father who's resistant to change.

Also, the family of African-American electronics store employee Henry (Pittsburgh native Jonathan Adams) will become a larger part of the story. Upcoming episodes will introduce his wife, Gwen, and daughter, Angela. Son Sam (Arlen Escarpeta) already appears.

In tonight's episode, Sam finds himself trapped between two worlds, unwelcome in the presence of his Catholic school peers and shunned by the students at the predominantly black school he used to attend.

Further down the road, Henry's twentysomething nephew will come to Philadelphia from Mississippi, giving "Dreams" an entree into the world of Malcolm X.

"You can't tell the story of civil rights in the '60s without it, but Henry wouldn't follow Malcolm," Prince said. The show's May season finale will likely be set against the backdrop of 1964 race riots in Philadelphia.

"You're always looking for the cliffhanger, how lucky for us the most turbulent time in Philadelphia's history happened during the period in our show."

Though the turbulent times help inform the characters, Prince said he's careful not to evolve any of them too quickly.

"Let's take the mom. She feels somewhat put upon and repressed, and the Virginia Madsen character introduced her to the world of education, not feminism. If we made Helen a feminist in year one, there'd be nowhere to go in years two, three and four," Prince said. "That eagerness-slash-desperation to get ratings is what would drive me to have Helen burn her bra. Or JJ wouldn't go to Vietnam in '65, he'd be the first guy there.

"You have to have the characters test the waters and put a toe in the water before they jump in, because that's what we would do. Too often in television and movies we sacrifice the timidity of characters because we're so eager to make a big splash."

"American Dreams" made a Nielsen splash when it debuted, although now it's settled in with a more modest, but decent-sized audience, ranking No. 35 in the ratings out of 139 series broadcast. And NBC expressed support by ordering a total of 25 episodes this season, three more than the usual. There's been some speculation that the show will move to 8 p.m. Friday after "Providence" ends its run, but Prince prefers to stay put.

"Some journalists are saying it would help the show, that we wouldn't be up against 'The Simpsons,' but it feels like a Sunday night show to me. I love that families are sitting down to watch it together."

Prince said making a family show appealed to him because he remembers watching "Eight Is Enough," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Family" in his youth, plus it allowed him to tap into some of his own experiences growing up in the late '60s.

"I grew up in a large family, I have four sisters, and we grew up around a dinner table that was, if not like this one, it smelled the same. I wanted to do those smells and those tastes and what it was like to be in a loud, confusing family when the '60s were happening to us."

Now it's happening to the characters on "American Dreams," including the many non-regulars who recur, which Prince sees as a reward to loyal viewers. Rather than have a guest star of the week around whom the story revolves, Prince prefers to build a roster of repeat guest stars. That includes the introduction of various extended Pryor family members, such as Jack's younger brother, Pete (Matthew Armstrong), who debuts tonight.

"I want it to become like reading Charles Dickens," Prince said. "Their world just gets bigger and bigger."

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

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