Stephanie Lynn, age 26, Massachusetts
Teen and young adult programming, in particular, in my opinion, may be at its lowest point in my short lifetime - there are very few teen and young adult* shows I regularly watch, and fewer still that I can recommend. Recently a friend recommended a show no longer on the air called American Dreams, which ran for three seasons on NBC from 2002-05. At the time, I was busy finishing high school and starting college, and I had a number of activities that kept me out some evenings, and somehow I missed it.
*I'm including shows developed specifically for a teen and young adult audience, as well as those for a general audience, which may be of interest to teens and young adults, such as Top Model. To clarify, American Dreams falls into the latter category.
Because no U.S. network is currently re-running the series, I had to order American Dreams, Season One on DVD from my local library system. It contains 25 of the 61 shows in the series. (The second and third seasons have not been released.)
American Dreams follows the lives of the Pryors, a typical working class family from Philadelphia. The First Season covers the time period from September 1963 to May 1964, each episode corresponding roughly to the month of the year it originally aired in 2002-03 ("November 1963" originally aired in the fall of 2002, and so on).
The central character is 15 year old Meg Pryor, a student at East Catholic High School, played by then-16 year old Brittany Snow, in her first major role. Meg's dad Jack (Tom Verica) owns a shop that sells TVs and radios (allowing the music and events of the day to play in the background), her mom Helen (Gail O'Grady) is, at least initially, a stay-at-home mom. Her older brother J.J. (Will Estes) is a senior football player at East Catholic, her younger sister Patty (Sarah Ramos) is about as annoying as a 12 year old sister can be, and her younger brother (Ethan Dampf) struggles with a disability caused by a bout with polio.
Sounds kinda dull, right? Hardly. Tight editing, creative transitions, well crafted humor, lots of cool music (more on this in a moment), and outstanding writing keep several fast-paced story lines moving at lightning speed, while complex, genuine characters are skillfully crafted, making you feel like you're living as a teenage girl in 1963.
In the opening episode, Meg and her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) make repeated efforts to get into the audience of Dick Clark's American Bandstand, which in 1963 was broadcast locally from a TV station in Philadelphia. In time, Meg and Roxanne not only find their way inside from the long line of hopeful teens standing in the freezing cold, but become regular dancers to pop hits of the most popular artists of the era, such as the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, Connie Francis, and yes, The Beatles. In many instances, these icons of 1963-64 are portrayed by contemporary artists, like Ashanti, LeAnn Rimes, and Kelly Clarkson. The best music of the era is a constant presence, playing on the radio, the phonograph (record player), and "live" on Bandstand.
Meg faces drama with other teens on Bandstand, drama at home, drama at school (yes, they had drama in Catholic high school in 1963), and drama with dates and boyfriends, making us realize that life may have been a little less complicated years ago, but many of the issues haven't changed all that much. Best friend Roxanne, "the girl with a reputation", probably knows more than any 15 year old should know (then or now) about certain things, and pulls Meg into situations she might not have ventured into on her own. We watch as a shy and innocent Meg grows up before our eyes, and like her older brother J.J., Roxanne, and other characters, makes the typical mistakes of teen life. Unlike so many older shows, there is no overt moralizing, but the lessons are there if we choose to see them in the very real situations and choices the characters make.
Little is candy-coated - even regular "good" characters live in their generation - they may smoke, have racial prejudices (either overt or subtle - very realistically portrayed, as mass market television goes), and deal with a variety of complicated issues with no easy answers. You expect the characters to "do the right thing" in the end - the smokers will realize the health hazards and quit, the racial prejudices will be addressed, the mean girls and know-it-all little sisters will get their comeuppance, and the ethical dilemmas will be neatly resolved, right? After all, it's TV. Well, sometimes it works out that way, and about as often it does not. Life's lessons are not always learned and injustices are not always righted.
Today's teen dramas often appear stuck on the same types of themes and characters, and sometimes prompt me say to myself, "if I see this story line or hear that line of dialogue one more time ..." Whatever American Dreams is, it is different. Different than anything you may be watching now. Viewing almost movie-quality episodes, you actually feel smarter, as well as challenged and entertained. (Although, you may need to chat with mom or grandma or go on Wikipedia to appreciate some of the references!) Unlike many shows, it's impossible for me to "just leave it on as background noise" while I go about my daily tasks. This especially applies to conversations around the Pryor dinner table, and I sometimes need to hit the rewind button to catch everything ... and it is worth catching. But they don't tend to dumb it down or explain the references, so you may want to pause and Google whenever you go "huh?" Either that or sit back and enjoy the music, and wonder why Meg doesn't punch out her obnoxious sister Patty. (I'm tempted to!)
I give American Dreams 5 stars (of a possible 5). Too bad we may have to wait years for the DVD release of seasons two and three, or for some cable network to decide to run it again.
A note about availability: As I said, I had to order American Dreams, Season One online from my local library system. (At least it was free!) It is also available from Netflix. It may take a bit of effort, and you will need to be prepared for something different than what you're used to, kind of like a movie set in a historical period, but for those tired of "same-ol'" programming for teens, it's totally worth it.