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TV Preview: Step back into the '60s with dream weavers, American style

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Inside Stage 14 at Sunset Gower Studios, the "American Bandstand" set and the dancing extras dressed in period fashions make it feel like 1964. The 21st century is easily forgotten.

"American Dreams"

When: 8 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Tom Verica, Jonathan Adams, Gail O'Grady.


But step outside, and there's a quick reminder you're not in 1960s Philadelphia. Look to the left, and the Hollywood sign looms on a not-too-distant hillside.

In an era of few period productions, this is the odd juxtaposition of past and present experienced by the cast and crew as they enter and exit soundstages that house sets for NBC's "American Dreams."In tonight's episode at 8, the summer of '64 is just beginning as the Pryor family vacations in Wildwood, N.J. The critically acclaimed, ratings-challenged family drama wraps up its first season May 18 with race riots in Philly.

Despite low ratings ("Dreams" ranks 67th this season, six series lower than NBC's already-canceled "Mister Sterling"), executive producer Jonathan Prince is confident his show will be renewed when the fall schedule is announced May 12.

"I had a conversation with [NBC Entertainment president] Jeff Zucker yesterday, in which he told me the things he wants to see in next year's shows," Prince said late last month. "He wanted to hear stories about where these two families go."

"American Dreams" focuses on the middle-class Pryor family, headed by strong-willed father, Jack (Tom Verica). The character came off as somewhat mean and controlling in early episodes, initially forbidding his teenage daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) from dancing on "Bandstand."

"Initially, it was a shock to the system because of how fathers as we know them today behave," Verica said. "But the more you see these characters, the more you see why he is that way."

Unlike the Pryor children, who are growing up as the world changes around them, their father finds much of what he believes or understands challenged.

"Part of the enjoyment is knowing how you think he's going to react, and then you start to see the little dents we make in that armor and see him growing as an individual through his family," Verica said.

For scenes at Jack Pryor's electronics store, designers built the set on the side of a soundstage so the store's front door opens to the outdoors. This allows cars to pass and people to walk by outside the storefront windows as scenes are filmed inside.

Wilkinsburg native Jonathan Adams plays Henry Walker, patriarch of the show's African-American family and an employee at Pryor's store. Adams' character, though a black man in 1960s America, is not at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Instead, he's representative of the emerging black middle class.

"I found myself doing things physically a lot different than I would for another character," Adams said. "He has a tendency to not meet peoples' gazes. I don't want him to be nodding and scraping and bowing, but there is a physicality about him that says, 'Whatever.' He takes the situation, but he does not protest it and does not want anything to be perceived as protestation."

That's left to Henry's nephew, Nathan, played by Keith Robinson, who is as soft-spoken in real life as his character is full of anger and indignation.

Walk into another soundstage, and the entire first floor of the Pryor home -- inside and outside -- dominates, looking for all the world like a real house. Fake grass is rolled out on the stage floor for the back yard and cars can be driven inside the soundstage to park on a driveway that leads to the detached garage, where Jack built his son's soap box derby car.

Inside the house, 8-year-old Ethan Dampf (who plays Will Pryor) and 11-year-old Sarah Ramos (who plays Patty Pryor) warn visitors not to open the refrigerator because, they say, "It smells bad in there."

Gail O'Grady, who plays mom Helen Pryor, said she's not a method actress, but she feels her character's pain as she stands in high heels in the Pryor family's kitchen.

"My back is killing me; it's been killing me since September," she said. Playing subservient also has its challenges.

"Tom Verica is having a blast playing a role like this. We'll finish a scene, and he goes, 'That's the way it's should be!' And then he goes home and sometimes his wife will say, 'You take that [attitude] right back to the set.' "

With teenager Meg and her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) regularly seen dancing on "American Bandstand," "Dreams" makes frequent use of '60s-era music. Some of it will be featured in the series' soundtrack album, which goes on sale Tuesday.

"Young kids, who I always thought would respond to the show, love the music," said director/co-executive producer David Semel. "I think I know why. Rap music absolutely has social significance but is inherently less musical. The music [today] is much more percussive and more about the lyrics. In the '60s, it was more about the beat and the rhythm."

On tonight's episode, members of the band Third Eye Blind play The Kinks performing "All Day and All of the Night" at a summer, beachside "Bandstand Hop."

For scenes of performances on "Bandstand," Semel sometimes uses original black-and-white footage that plays on the studio's monitors. Other times, when a performer's face is less famous than his or her music, he'll re-create the footage. Modern music stars -- including Nick Carter, Ashanti and B2K -- regularly guest star, playing greats of the era.

With the exception of scenes at the Pryor dining- room table, where dialogue frequently overlaps just as it does in real life, Semel said producers make an effort to limit the amount of dialogue on the show.

"We're always trying to do less words," he said. "We're trying to sell the emotions visually."

Semel pointed to a moment in an early episode when son JJ (Will Estes) has success on the football field. JJ looks for his father in the bleachers, stretches out his arm and index finger and points at him.

When that moment was hatched in the "Dreams" writers room, Semel turned to show runner Prince and said, "That's where our show lives." Several episodes of the father and son fighting over whether JJ should play football built toward the moment.

"It's not a talking, verbose, intellectual moment," Semel said. "When the son points at the dad, he basically says, 'I was listening to you.' I don't know anybody who doesn't have that kind of relationship with their father or the antithesis of that. It's a moment of communication, a relationship that came before the script."

Semel said the idea of creating moments and then building a script around them came from his friend, screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote "Jurassic Park." Semel said director Steven Spielberg came to Koepp with an idea for a scene in which the thumping approach of a dinosaur is signaled by concentric circles in a cup of water perched on a car dashboard. With "American Dreams," Semel and Prince take a similar approach.

"On a procedural show, they come up with a cool case. On a more traditional soap opera, the storyline guides everything," Prince said. "On our show we have to pay homage to the storyline: Who does JJ pick, Colleen or Beth? What happens when Mom gets too close to her professor and he makes a move on her? But the shows themselves come from the idea of a visual in a scene or a moment."

Tonight's episode began with the idea for a pivotal scene between Jack and Henry, in which Henry is humbled and humiliated when he has to call on his boss for assistance.

"It's different from most television that's either story driven or word driven," Prince said. "We try to be image driven and emotion driven, because when the show works, it works because you feel what [the characters are] feeling."

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

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