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'American Dreams' Revisited

There are many traps for the unfortunate television reviewer. Being forced to watch unrelieved dreck is only the most obvious one. The other traps are more insidious and often more agonizing: Sometimes you watch a show only for it to be cancelled before you can write your review. Other times someone else on staff gets to writing their review first, so you’ve wasted your valuable time for nothing. Unless you’re Phil, in which case you can run your redundant review anyway. Rarely, you find a show you fall in love with and write that glowing review, only to have the show yanked from the air anyway. Yes, there are many traps.

Perhaps the worst trap, though — the one you can’t even get out of by chewing off your own leg — is when you watch the show with someone you live with, be they husband, wife, child, roomie, or cellmate. And you do not like the show and would never watch it again, except they do, and they then put it on your TV — perhaps as often as once a week! — until you die. Or anyway the show gets itself cancelled.

It was just this way that I ended up watching almost two full seasons of the wretched That’s Life. I was even about to spin that moldy hay into spiteful follow-up review gold when the show was summarily put to death (see Trap Number Two, above).

I wasn’t out of the trap for long before the next one came along and snapped me up, this one titled American Dreams. As you can tell from my review, I was not overly fond of this show. I really only wrote the thing to make fun of my wife’s mostly former accent, just like Phil said.

I didn’t like the show, but my wife jumped on it like a fresh cheesesteak from Pat’s. I can understand why, although it took me a while to work it out: In a way, it gives her something of a window into her father’s youth. He and the character of JJ would be almost exactly the same age, and both grew up in pretty much the same neighborhood. Her father played football in high school and he attended the same one fictionalized as East Catholic in the show. JJ and my wife’s dad were pretty close parallels until JJ got sent to Vietnam; my wife’s father never served, while JJ is having all kinds of adventures in the Land of Artfully Disarrayed House Plants.

Truth be told, the show has grown on me. I’m a sucker, really. I’ll fall for almost anything, and American Dreams, which can be very not good, also isn’t often really bad. Sure, the second season’s gimmick of having performers from the 1960s played by modern performers has done little except show how lousy most modern performers are in comparison. The high point of this (or low, if you prefer) came with the überbland Nick Lachey getting lost in the toes somewhere while trying to fill the shoes of Tom Jones — never mind his complete inability to fake a Welsh accent (and who can blame him for that?), the boy just can’t sing with anything approaching Tom Jones’ power. Jones, lest we forget, once broke a microphone with the power of his voice alone. Nick Lachey could break a microphone, maybe, but only with a hammer and a burly assistant.

The show still has its share of overwhelmingly cutesy moments, too: As when Meg visits Beth at her job as a bartender while a performer does a sound check in the background. “Who’s that?” asks Meg. “Janis something,” Beth replies, and we are then treated to a very unfortunate rendering of early Janis Joplin courtesy of next month’s flavor, Bonnie McKee. Thank you, Relentless Promotion Machine!

Nevertheless, I follow the show in a soap opera kind of way, even though I dislike myself for it. My wife will sometimes watch an episode without me and I find myself spending the next viewing pestering her with questions: “What happened to the pregnancy? Aren’t they still dating? Who’s that guy? Where’d the Nation of Islam go? Did they kiss yet?”

The show has some quirks which I actually think are good TV. Early in the show’s run they used a technique — which they later played down but which has been making a strong comeback — where the dialogue from one scene overlaps with the following scene so that it comments on the action even though the two are unrelated. It’s simple, maybe, and not the most original thing ever, but it’s not the kind of thing you see in off-the-shelf TV, and it brings American Dreams to a new level.

Another thing the show clearly is trying to do is have characters react in unexpected ways, but which are consistent with the character. I keep expecting Henry, for example, to finally say something to his nephew Nathan about what a jerk he is — it would be standard in any TV drama to have a big confrontation around the dinner table — but the writers steadfastly refuse to have Henry do anything other than a low simmer no matter how angry he gets. That Henry is a man who has learned to keep his emotions, good and bad, under tight control is a trait the show has come back to again and again. It would be so easy to turn him into a caricature, but they’ve managed to avoid it so far. And Jonathan Adams has built a whole range of physical nuances for his portrayal of Henry to reflect the writing almost perfectly.

Which brings me to what I think is the true center of the show. NBC would have you believe the show is about Meg Pryor, but I happen to think Meg is the weakest, limpest part of the show. No, the true center of the show is shared by the two fathers, Henry and Jack. Tom Verica’s Jack Pryor is what draws me into American Dreams the most. Verica and the show’s creative team have collaborated to create possibly the most rounded portrait of a father ever seen on TV. Going in to the first episode, I was sure Jack would be your standard by-the-numbers TV dad: Gruff, lacking understanding of his kids, a force to be defied and ignored by his children, someone to be undercut by his wife at home and his wise African-American underling at work. But by some miracle or planetary conjunction or other unknown force, Jack Pryor wasn’t written that way. He’s strong, thoughtful, sometimes wise, sometimes wrong, occasionally stubborn, always loving. He’s often conflicted and Tom Verica shows that with a subtle and powerful performance. He doesn’t always know what’s right but he tries to work it out, and the actor gives him small silences in which to think. You don’t often see characters thinking on TV. You also don’t often see characters who don’t broadcast their every feeling with dialogue. I find myself telling Jack on my TV, “Just say how you feel. Tell Henry how much you value him. Go ahead. SPEAK!” But he doesn’t. Because that’s not Jack. Jack lets his silences and his actions speak for him.

Unfortunately, if all you’ve seen of American Dreams is the promos NBC runs for it, you probably think I’m insane. NBC has been undercutting this show from its inception, trying to place each new episode as some enormous crisis in American history during which one family is torn apart. The promos always take a few lines completely out of context so you think all hell is breaking loose, when in fact in context it’s just another small step along the soapy plotline. Jack Pryor is especially badly served by the commercials: There’s always some line where he’s throwing someone out of the house or making some kind of ultimatum or something, when on the show he’s very measured.

If NBC would promote the show properly, and maybe stop trying to peddle their lame would-be pop stars during an otherwise inoffensive show, American Dreams could be a whole lot better. Well, I guess NBC figures the series nabbed a couple of Emmys so it doesn’t need improving. Even if the awards were for Outstanding Costumes and, uh, Outstanding Hairstyling.

There is one more small bright spot. Peter Onorati has been showing up more and more lately as the recurring character of Dom, another store owner in Jack Pryor’s neighborhood. The amazing thing about Dom is this: He has a genuine Philadelphia accent. Onorati must have perfect pitch to have so superbly captured the inflection which has so eluded virtually every other actor on the show. It’s even more impressive since the actor is from Boonton, New Jersey, which, despite sounding as if it’s the distant hinterlands, is actually a fairly urban area not known for its working-class accent.

Every time Dom speaks, I feel like I’m in my in-laws’ row home. But I manage to suppress the urge to flee. After all, I need to find out if JJ is going to get his privates blown off in the Nam.


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