Lost somewhere amidst the barrage of crime-and-procedural shows on network television (CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, CSI: Rochester, CSI: Des Moines) is American Dreams, a heartfelt (sometimes too much) homage to family. And while nostalgia sometimes gets in the way of storytelling, the journey of the Pryor family is compelling and well crafted television.
Meet the Pryor family: Father Jack, an old-style patriarch, mother Helen, who actually holds the family together, daughter Meg, a regular on American Bandstand, daughter Patty, who has no outstanding characteristics, son JJ, a high school football star and son Will, who has a bad leg but still wants to emulate his older brother.
"Historical drama" can often rely too heavily on the time period setting. It happens on occasion in American Dreams, as well. It takes an occasionally overwhelming set of "coincidences" for each character to be confronted with the realities of the changing face of America in the 1960s. On those occasions (Meg at the television store in the middle of the Philadelphia race riots of 1964, for instance) the plot is a little distracting.
In addition, a great deal of effort is put into getting each family member into every episode, even when there are no obvious sub-plots to follow. Will for instance, feels shoehorned into several episodes, including "The One," where he struggles to apply a sticker to his soap box derby car.
However, when we get away from the historical events – or, even better, use the events as springboards into the family dynamic – we get a very interesting look into family life at a very difficult time of social change. The character development, at least in the lead roles, is on par with the great HBO dramas such as Six Feet Under.
The performances are solid, though not spectacular wit the exceptions of Gail O'Grady as Helen and Brittany Snow as Meg. Snow in particular is fantastic, taking on the biggest role of the show with a kind of presence well beyond her years.
American Dreams is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio and in Dolby 5.1. The picture is sharp and mainly free of picture noise and digital transfer issues. The dialogue is easy to make out over the consistent background noise and music, but the surrounds only come into play during music performances.
The seventh disc of the collection features two special features: A music video for "My Boyfriend's Back," sung by Stacie Orocio, and a 30-minute "Time Capsule" piece on the 1960s. The former is uninspiring (though fun to see stars Snow and Lengies lip-syncing backup) and the latter is clearly aimed towards those whom have never had a history course and never seen the newsreel footage. It is hosted by Brian Williams, who must be counting the days until someone else gets mop-up duty for NBC News.
In addition there are commentary tracks on three episodes and "Back to Bandstand" highlights – clips from the original show.
A surprisingly smart drama, American Dreams is an interesting look at the dynamic of family life during a very turbulent time in American history, one of incredible change. And while at times the plot gets heavy-handed, and while it is remarkable how all of these historic events manage to touch the family somehow, the occasional "coincidences" aren't enough to frustrate.