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California Dreams: Seasons 1 & 2

(NBC; US DVD: 31 Mar 2009)

Dear Miley Cyrus,


I know we don’t talk much and that’s my fault. I’ve spent the last two years cringing when your songs come on the radio; rushing to flip the channel when I catch the slightest glimpse of that stupid Hannah Montana wig, and mocking the international crisis created by the sight of your bare shoulder.


But now I’ve got to apologize. You see, a week or two ago, the UPS man delivered the first two seasons of California Dreams on DVD. What’s that, you’ve never heard of it? Well, it’s one of your show’s predecessors and twice as hackneyed and corny as any of the sugary sweet stories that Disney has concocted for Hannah.


But the thing is, when I held that DVD box in my hands for the first time I just didn’t care. I was once again a 12-year-old with sky-high mall bangs who parked in front of the TV every Saturday morning to lust after the ultra-glamorous lives of a group of California teens who had their own ultra-hip garage band.


After popping the first disc into the DVD player, I had the strange desire to jump on my bed and, using my hairbrush as a microphone, sing along to the truly awful theme song – just the way millions of tweens do every time “The Best of Both Worlds” kicks in to introduce an episode of your show.


It was then that I realized that hating all things Hannah Montana doesn’t make me a discerning hipster; it just makes me old. You and I – and Hannah and the California Dreams – may be separated by a decade or so, but we’re all part of the same teen culture circle of life (you’ve heard of that, I’m sure – you work for Disney, after all.)


Allow me to explain, because I can see you look a bit confused. Hannah Montana may be the defining teen show of the 2000s, but California Dreams was the spawn of the defining teen show of the 1990s: Saved by the Bell.


If you ever get a free minute between attending movie premieres and making fun of Demi Lovato on YouTube, check out a few episodes of Saved by the Bell. Repeats air on American cable at least a half dozen times a day. Trust me; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen dreamy Zack Morris wield a then-cutting edge cell phone about the size of your Maltipoo.


Saved by the Bell was an incredibly successful Saturday morning sitcom that convinced NBC to chase after a teen audience in timeslots that were once reserved exclusively for the elementary school set. California Dreams was conceived by the same production team and has the same basic premise – high school students grappling with problems that can be solved in a half-hour, no matter how serious the issue. But the show had an added cool factor (and marketing opportunity) – this group of beautiful teens could sing and play instruments!


It’s clear from watching the series’ first season that the creative minds behind the teen show circuit have learned a thing or two since the ‘90s. California Dreams initially attempted to be a family sitcom, featuring prominent roles for the parents and kid brother of the teenage twins at the band’s epicenter.


But the creators quickly learned what you, Miley, already know – tweens and teens don’t want to see realistic portrayals of parents and kid brothers! They want to see shows more like Hannah Montana or Nickelodeon’s iCarly and Zoey 101, all of which put the teens at the center of the universe. Adults and little kids are nonexistent, or relegated to being dimwits who provide the comic relief.


You can’t blame the creators of California Dreams for being a bit slow – after all, past teen idols like Ricky Nelson and David Cassidy were part of multigenerational casts and shows that had something to offer to the entire family.


The concept of creating television shows with broad appeal is waning, thanks to the advent of cable and the ability to cater an entire network to a specific group or genre. If California Dreams had been created today, the show would have almost certainly ended up as a companion for Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel, or as a competitor airing on Nickelodeon or the N.


Back in the ‘90s, however, programmers were just starting to figure things out. So it understandably took a dozen episodes before it became clear that the female half of California Dreams’ lead sibling pair was a snooze and that none of the guys qualified as a true heartthrob.


At least that’s what I think happened. Nowadays, I would have learned the truth online without even really trying, the same way I learned about the feud you and Billy Ray are having with Jamie Foxx. Back in the pre-Internet days, however, a Tiger Beat article about the stars’ favorite colors was the closest I came to learning anything about the actors’ lives beyond a list of names in the opening credit sequence.


None of the episodes in the first two seasons qualify as must-see TV, but the show definitely picks up steam in Season Two, with the addition of brooding “bad boy” Jake (Jay Anthony Franke) and perky exchange student Sam (Jennie Kwan), who moves in with the core family when the boring twin is sent packing to music school. 


As musical star-making vehicles go, however, your exploits as Hannah Montana and the adventures of your buddies the Jonas Brothers are light-years ahead of this crowd. The California Dreams never filled real-life stadiums; their pop ditties barely filled all the seats in Sharky’s, the show’s fictional hangout spot. Unfortunately, one of the pair of measly extras on the set is a video “jukebox” that basically amounts to clips of the band’s middling musical performances.


All that said, check out California Dreams one of these days. You probably won’t get it; but maybe you’ll be a bit kinder in a decade or two, when you have kids and the Hannah Montana of 2030 is driving you nuts.


P.S. Whatever you do, don’t watch the other extra – a feature in which four of the stars of California Dreams look back on the experience. It’s sweet to know that the cast is still friendly but you’ll get a nasty peek into your former teen idol future – wrinkles and crow’s feet.


That’s all for now – stay sweet!


XOXO,


- Rachel

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