[10 March 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Maybe someday it won’t be so hard.
—Meg (Brittany Snow), “Commencement”
You girls aren’t allowed in here.
—Barbara Eden (Paris Hilton), “California Dreamin’”
Life never stands still for Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow). As American Dreams delivers what are likely to be its last four episodes, she and her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) are graduating from high school in 1966 Philadelphia, with Meg set to deliver the commencement address. A sweet-natured, middle-class white kid, Meg has grown up during the show’s first three and half seasons, abandoning what once seemed a terminal perkiness for more nuanced disillusionment. That’s not to say that Meg is ever quite down. Rather, she’s a survivor, in spite and because of her naïve exterior.
Unable to sustain a network-pleasing viewership (this season it’s averaged about 7/5 million, down about eight million from the previous year, and 10 million during its first year), American Dreams’ end now appears imminent. This much is indicated by NBC’s decision to move the show from Sunday nights to Wednesdays (opposite ABC’s ratings hog Lost), and has cut the number of episodes for the season nearly from 22 to 13). This abandonment of the series is too bad, honestly, for it is one of the few to grapple weekly with current events and anxieties, in the guise of not-so-nostalgic “history.”
Opening with the JFK assassination, American Dreams immediately situated tv and history in a mutually influential relationship: as Meg and her family watched the funeral on tv, the image suggested at once the “community” of viewers produced by the crisis, as well as the expanding effects of mass media on national and otherwise collective identities. As creator Jonathan Prince recently told the New York Times, the thinking behind this image was to connect the series seeming “nostalgia” with current events, in particular, 9/11. In the ensuing seasons, American Dreams engaged in more sustained connection-making, shifting focus from the melodrama acted out by Meg’s parents, Helen (Gail O’Grady) and Jack (Tom Verica), to a storyline that sent her brother JJ (Will Estes) to Vietnam (during the war’s ominous expansion, from 1965-‘66), captured in Cambodia, he has now has made his way home, where he faces Beth (Rachel Boston) and their infant; no surprise, JJ has had trouble finding work (he wants to work for NASA, but has no formal education beyond high school) and frets because he is unable to “settle” back into any sort of pre-war condition.
Meg’s own evolving understanding of history as mutable, arbitrary, and even favoring certain powers, has been visible in her decisions—sometimes childish, sometimes remarkably thoughtful—to resist expectations, both her family’s and yours. Throughout, she has remained dedicated to dancing on American Bandstand, this being the show’s defining “gimmick” and venue for guest stars, that is, contemporary artists posing as past pop stars, for examples, Michelle Branch as Lesley Gore, Wayne Brady as Jackie Wilson, Brandy as Gladys Knight, Usher as Marvin Gaye. If some appearances have been more thrilling than others (Jennifer Love Hewitt as Nancy Sinatra?), they do indicate the series’ desire draw young viewers and illustrate the intricacies of consumption-as-history (and vice versa). The patterns are predictable and disconcerting: “American dreams” are produced and reproduced in celebrity and performance.
As a device to integrate tv—as a process and production, as well as a means of (brief) magical transport—into Meg’s experience, the AB stint has proved ingenious: she and Rox share their deepest concerns while clapping their hands on the bleachers, or argue while bobbing on the dance floor, monitors, cameras, and performers visible all around them. Growing up on (and to an extent, as) tv, the girls are both typical teens and model consumers, eager to win boys’ attentions and evade their parents’ seemingly oppressive scrutiny.
At the same, the past two years have seen Meg in particular become more “politically” engaged, in part on her brother’s behalf, as she was arrested at an anti-war protest, but also in her emerging understanding of the ways the “government” imposes its will on citizens. Whether squabbling with her little sister Patty (Sarah Ramos) or negotiating with her dad for small measure of “independence,” Meg presses for the sort of understanding that eludes most teenagers (And adults, for that matter). She wants the world to make sense, to be ordered and fait; her discovery that it’s not has been painful and rather a lengthy process as well.
Her most recent trauma has been slow-burning, emerging from that most crucial aspect of American Dreams’ renegotiation of the ‘60s, racism and the Civil Rights Movement. Punctuated by familiar images (a local race riot, protest marches, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. on television), Meg’s absorption of this ongoing national trauma has been affected by her father’s emerging consciousness as well; this season, Jack, a city councilman, has been butting heads with the old guard over his support of a black police candidate.
Meg’s own dilemma was underlined when she realized, in this year’s 30 January episode “Starting Over” (the last before the show went on its brief and probably panicky “hiatus”), what you’ve known for some time, namely, that her friendship with Sam (Arlen Escarpeta) has become something else. At her prom, Sam and Meg danced, and realized they felt differently about one another than they had presumed. “We danced,” she later reports to Rox, in the 9 March episode, “Commencement.” “And it didn’t feel like just a dance” “It was a date!” asserts Rox, thrilled that her friend has at last realized her feelings for the nicest boy they know.
For her part, Meg is predictably, even adorably excited, but also worried. She’s seen the troubles her father and especially his partner Henry (Jonathan Adams)—Sam’s father—have endured in their joint business, a television store. She’s also watched her father undergo something of a revelation over the past couple of years, becoming conscious that his own ignorance of racism has also been self-serving and (however unconsciously) exploitive. When she discusses her budding romance with JJ, in “Commencement” (“He’s such a nice guy and we might not be just friends”), big brother sets her straight. Their parents, he says, no matter how open-minded they appear, could never allow their little girl to date a black boy. Meg is perplexed: “You had Negro friends in Vietnam,” she argues, tentatively. That’s different, he asserts, and that’s the end of that conversation.
But it’s hardly the end of Meg’s disquiet. While she spends much of the episode working on her graduation speech, the series comes up with a smartly structured critique of social and cultural systems that remain in place to this day. “I wanted to give a speech today,” begins Meg, gallant in her gown, standing before her fellow graduates. “About how our lives can be anything we want them to be, about how ‘the future is now.’ But I cannot give that speech. Not anymore.”
As she continues to speak, the scene cuts to Stokely Carmichael (Brian McKnight—now here’s an innovative use of a pop star), addressing a SNCC meeting. He delineates the many disappointments and abject failures of “this racist society, a society built on the blood and sweat of our black skin. But today we are standing up. We must question the values of this society. And I maintain that black people are the best people to do that because we have been excluded from that society. We ought to think about whether we want to become a part of that society.” At the same time, so their voices are interlaced, Meg continues to speak: “The future isn’t something that we can simply imagine. It isn’t something that just arrives on our doorstep. The future is something that we have to fight for. We must fight the hatred and prejudice, and not just in society. We must fight them in the hidden places of our own heart.”
That she sees a distinction between “society” and “out own hearts,” already puts her a step ahead (or a step further into frustration). The following episode, “California Dreamin’,” which airs 16 March, provides an appropriately alarming next step (which only looks backwards). When Meg wins a Campbell’s Soup Essay contest, she and Rox fly off to Hollywood, where artifice and performance are acutely visible. Here she and Rox meet some helpfully instructive “hippies” (“We’ve given up on that world, we’re not a part of it,” one girl says), and also, the flipside of the same culture, Barbara Eden, on the set of I Dream of Jeannie (“We are standing inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle!” they squeal).
While there’s surely something snarky to be said about the fact that Eden is played by Paris Hilton, the casting is also apt. As emblems of the most plastic and willfully ignorant media industry, Hilton, Eden, and Jeannie combine to suggest just how much Meg needs to figure out her place in this “future” she wants to fight for.