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Fall '02: Dream On

I watched the premiere of American Dreams on TiVo last night. Not a good show.

Why? Well, it has a few problems. First, the show can't seem to figure out what it's about. Most of the show is about a middle-class family in 1963 Philadelphia. Helen and Jack Pryor (Gail O'Grady and Tom Verica), good Catholics, struggle to raise their three children, eldest JJ (Will Estes), heading for high school graduation, college, and possibly a football scholarship; feisty Meg (Brittany Snow), who wants nothing more than to be on American Bandstand and meet boys; and youngest Will (Ethan Dampf) who is, well, um, young. The show is about their hopes, their fears, their reactions as they meet the crises of life, and -- of course -- their dreams. Nothing wrong with that.

But then the show toddles off its track and is about something else: It's a quasi-documentary about 1963. The introduction of instant replay to televised football games. The popularity of the TV show American Bandstand. The assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Ah, but then the show stumbles a bit more, and it's about something entirely else. As Meg manages to finagle a spot on American Bandstand, the show becomes a different quasi-documentary, this one about AB. We see the cameramen and what they do between shots (one opens up a well-broken-in paperback). We see the director as he calls out instructions to the crew. We see grips and gaffers moving things and polishing the set. We see brief appearances, from original AB footage, of the recording artists of 1963, and we get to hear the semi-salacious backstage banter of the crew. (Regarding the Beach Boys: "Don't talk to Mike, he's a wild card. Go with Brian." "If only they knew," we're supposed to snicker, having been prepped for this moment by VH1's Behind the Music.)

Okay. So we've got three shows here. And none of them are especially good. None of them are exceptionally bad, and the writers are clearly taking pains to have the characters react in unexpected ways -- as when the Catholic priest snaps at JJ to forget his feelings and just play football, dammit, because it's his responsibility to do so.

The show doesn't quite look like 1963. The Bandstand footage isn't very seamlessly integrated. On the plus side, the kids look about their ages and, particularly speaking about Brittany Snow and Vanessa Bojarski, the actors look like actual humans and not like staggeringly gorgeous actors.

So altogether the show would get a B-minus from me, maybe a C. Not something I want to watch again, but only mildly awful.

There's just one problem.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Philadelphia knows about the Philly accent. Everyone from Philly has a distinct accent and it sounds nothing like one from Brooklyn or Boston or anyplace else on Earth. The Philly accent is this odd almost-drawl, kind of a gargle, completely different from any of the various New York nasal twangs or Boston flatnesses. It's unmistakable, a part of Philly as much as any cheesesteak, Liberty Bell, or William Penn statue.

And it is completely and totally absent from American Dreams.

In another show this might not be a major oversight. But American Dreams is supposed to be set in a very particular time and place. The location and the people are integral to the concept of the show: Philly, 1963, American Freaking Bandstand. Playing this without one even half-hearted stab at the Philly accent is like "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" in Minnesota, like Huckleberry Finn in Cockney, like Welcome Back Kotter in Farsi.

And, as they might say in Philly, that just idn't roight.


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