Wednesday, January 26, 2005

American Dreams 

Well, Lost isn't on tonight - but I know Goldberg and Guthrie readers have become accustomed to weekly posts about television shows. So I wanted to put in a plug for American Dreams. I always thought this show looked pretty dumb, but my girlfriend watches it and when we began living in sin together I started watching it as well. (For what it's worth, I also now watch General Hospital, I Wanna Be a Soap Star, Gilmore Girls (god what a terrible, terrible show) and Seventh Heaven (also terrible, but more than worth watching just to read the Television Without Pity recap.)

Anyway, with all the utter and complete garbage on network TV (keep in mind, we live in a world where King of Queens and Yes, Dear are hits), I'm sort of surprised this show doesn't get more attention. If you don't know, it's about two families in Philadelphia in the 1960s - one white, one black. The central gimmick of the show is that the main girl - Meg - is a dancer on American Bandstand, which apparently was filmed in Philadelphia. The other gimmick of the show is that any historical event that happened during the 1960s comes to influence the lives of our main characters in the most dramatic way possible.

So, it can be sort of cheesy sometimes - but the American Bandstand scenes actually work. They often have current pop stars imitating the singers - which can be distracting, but they do a good job of keeping it in the background.

The thing I like about the show is that the main characters, while likeable, are subtlely flawed. For example, the dad of the white family owns an electronic store. He opened another store, and let the dad of the black family run it - probably a pretty big deal in the 1960s. So, he's a good guy, and we all learn a lesson that racism is wrong. Then, the white dad runs for city council - and when he can't win (but, importantly, only when he realizes he can't win the white vote) he courts the black vote. The black people go to vote on a bus, but they are pulled over by the racist sheriff - so they walk about 10 miles to get to the polls. And we learn an important lesson about the heroism of civil rights activists. But when the white dad gets on city council, he feels that he can't vote for a black sheriff. He says he has to gain more influence, and the black dad quickly realizes that he's not going to change anything at all. At the end of the last episode, the white dad was openly considering accepting a bribe in order to buy a house for his son - recently returned from Vietnam. So is the white dad a good guy? Obviously, he is less racist and cares more about the black community than 95% of other whites. But doesn't that make his behavior somewhat worse? Anyway, I think it's interesting.

The main plot this year has involved JJ - eldest son in the white family - going to Vietnam. Predictably, many cliches popped up - he went to Cambodia, he met an Apocalypse Now Redux -style French family, he had a relationship with a hot Vietnamese girl. Then he came home (in a pretty good episode). All the while, his sister (Meg) has been protesting the war. Now, the mom is working for a peace group - and is asked to help send a deserter to Canada, which she eventually does - and JJ finds out. I just like that the show doesn't play it in such a way that the mom is obviously right or wrong. I also like that neither JJ nor the mom (nor any of the characters) are too smart - often, when shows deal with issues like this, they make the characters way too smart so they can engage in fascinating debates. Neither JJ nor the mom knows that much about why the US is in Vietnam - their last fight ended with the mom saying she couldn't let another mother go through what she went through and JJ saying, "You're just wrong, Mom, I can't say it any other way."

It's no Lost or Sopranos - the show has its pretty bad episodes and some downright dreadful moments - such as an unspeakable cameo by Nick from The Apprentice. (Not to mention the occasional "why, you have a good voice young, unknown girl - what's your name?" "Linda- Linda Rondstat" moments.) But I think it's profoundly underrated - it's probably the best non-Lost drama on network television right now. The acting is good, the concept is interesting, and the characters just flawed enough to make you think. I can't believe I wrote this much on this show, which I think means I liked it more than I thought I did before I started. I'm going to go so far as to recommend that you watch a few episodes.
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