It’s November 1963, and America is on the verge of major cultural and social changes that will permanently alter the national status quo. Throughout the country, those changes will be heralded by a sound, emanating from millions and millions of homes, in cities, in the country, and especially in the suburbs. The sound will come from television, during the pseudo-halcyon days when NBC, ABC, and CBS exerted a not-always-benevolent dictatorship over TV-land.
Television is all over NBC’s new drama, American Dreams, from the very first scene, in which two girls run home to watch American Bandstand after being refused entry to a live taping, to the last shot, a recreation of the flat line that emerged when the picture tube of an early 1960s-vintage set was turned off.
But NBC’s hype for the program emphasizes rock and roll music, not television, relying, like so much popular memory of that period, on clichés about the music being the exhilarating way out of the ’50s conservative malaise. Rock and roll is used in American Dreams as an affective device, a surefire way to elicit and deploy nostalgic feelings and memories of the early 1960s, even in viewers who were very young or not yet born at the time. At the same time, the series recognizes an important point: rock and roll was deeply dependent on television in its early days. And that hasn’t really changed.
It is only appropriate that American Dreams draws upon the empowering aspects of popular music to augment its narrative. The series is part of the first full television season after the events of 9/11/01. Several shows last year reacted to those events, but given that storylines were well underway already, they could only acknowledge the impact in hastily written inserts or late-season episodes. But if series TV couldn’t accommodate the trauma, music on TV could. Within weeks of 9/11, popular musicians appeared on TV, in live performances and taped concerts, designed to soothe and reassure a grieving nation. It worked, if only for the brief span of the program.
American Dreams recognizes the centrality of television in American life and its specific power when linked to music. The series’ protagonists, the Pryor family of Philadelphia, rely on television in a variety of ways. Jack (Tom Verica), the good Catholic paterfamilias, owns a television store. Stay-at-home mom Helen (Gail O’Grady) allays some of her boredom by watching cooking programs on her local network affiliate, WFIL in Philadelphia. (An ABC affiliate, but NBC conveniently sweeps that annoying little fact under the rug.) Here, television is a mirror of Helen’s creeping dissatisfaction with her lot in life. One scene in the premiere episode illustrates: Helen scratches down notes while the not-so-happy host of the program complains about her crew and her disdain for cooking, thus subtly, but probably not intentionally, implicating television in the coming women’s movement.
Cute teenage girl Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) is something of a proto-feminist herself. Although it’s clear that she loves the music she hears on American Bandstand, being on the program that matters. Her life will be saved by rock and roll — on television. And the hunky teenage son JJ (Will Estes) wants desperately to avoid being on television as the Notre Dame football star of his father’s American Dreams.
But, while network television is important to the Pryors — underlined at the end of this first episode when they, and the entire nation, gather round it for news and continuing coverage of JFK’s assassination — it is the biggest problem with American Dreams. Unlike cable series (like those other popular family sagas, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under), it must adhere to certain conventions. This means that the characters are far too recognizable and straightforward. Jack is appropriately clueless, but in a not-very-interesting way (except for one thing, which I’ll get to). Helen’s trajectory seems to be too pre-ordained at this point: she’ll join a renegade housewife friend in urging her book group to read The Group instead of the Book-of-the-Month-Club recommended Shoes of the Fisherman, she’ll urge her husband to let Meg dance on American Bandstand, and she’ll make vague threats to go back to school.
Though it’s a bit too soon to tell, Meg might become more complicated over time. Right now, she’s a perky high-school girl, but she loves that rock and roll and what it represents — a good sign if NBC decides to run with it. The strangest character is son JJ, who wants to abandon football and his father’s plans for him in favor of some other, more mysterious calling. American Dreams doesn’t even hint at what that is. Or, as on other network “family” shows, he may just be in place to attract teenage girls. The program is rife with other familiar devices — the music that tells what to feel and when, the two cute younger children for comic relief, and Jack’s African American employee, who will enable an exploration of civil rights in an episode or two.
That said, American Dreams is oddly compelling, especially when it exploits its network television-ordained limits. Even though it feels like a publicity device, the association with American Bandstand makes a point long denied by the arbiters of rock culture, that television was (and to some extent remains) crucial to the spread, development, and popularity of rock and roll music and the counterculture. Even the much derided American Bandstand captured early rock and roll’s excitement, and even though its audience and dancers were strictly segregated, it provided a forum for African Americans on television during a time when their presence on that medium was rare by design.
American Dreams also gets a lot of period details right. The youngest Pryor wears his leg in a brace, a relic of the polio epidemic that swept the country in the mid-1950s and seemed to leave at least one kid in every neighborhood hobbled in some way. Moreover, the series captures a side of American Catholicism that is now buried under scandal, accusation, and increased dissatisfaction with Church leaders. The Pryor children all attend parochial school, the priests are football coaches as well as moral arbiters for their flock, and Jack Pryor doesn’t go to Church, a practice of many good Catholic fathers of my early youth, including my own dad. I never knew why he didn’t go to Mass, and American Dreams would do well to keep Jack’s reasons to itself, as it complicates this otherwise predictable character.
Most evocatively, the omnipresence of television, as a structuring presence, a window on the world, and a lifeblood, provides American Dreams with its energy. American Dreams, although set in the supposedly kindler, gentler days of 1963, manages not wrap itself in a “things were so much better then” haze. In so doing, it encourages viewers to think about the issues it tentatively raises, and to make connections between the lives it portrays and the lives we live now.