With a handful of films over the last few years, Hollywood has flirted with capturing the role music plays in individuals’ lives. Television, though, hasn’t truly followed suit in exploring music in any depth, despite the recent avalanche of soundtracks related to TV shows (“Scrubs,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls” are the latest). Music, specifically the pop hits played on “American Bandstand” in 1963, gives the sensational “American Dreams” a solid point of entry for the baby-boomer audience it should easily attract — even if music only truly affects one character in this ensemble piece.
The pilot for “Dreams” rumbles through an assortment of petty annoyances and the aspirations of unshaped lives butting up against the rigidity of 1950s morality and order; like “MASH,” it’s a period piece where the audience benefits from knowing how it all ends and turns a blind eye to notions gleamed from experience not available at the time. With the emotional tug of “Wonder Years” presented with the production values of “The West Wing,” “Dreams” should follow “Wing,” “The Sopranos” and “24” as stellar shows that live up to the promise of its pilot.
Series will pivot off the assassination of President Kennedy, the event that comes at the close of “American Dreams’ ” first hour. It could easily lead to some emotional hokum, but the structure of “American Dreams” — intimate portrayals of mom, dad, four kids and a few friends — opens the door for varying sentiments being struck over the course of 22 episodes. In the opener, all these characters ring true — the writing is top notch, the performances range from good to potentially star-making (in the case of Brittany Snow), and the photography of Brian Reynolds hits the right notes in every setting. Using music of the era puts the icing on the visceral cake here: Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” gives the opening scenes a powerful energy, and Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance” revs up show’s middle seg.
In the days prior to the Kennedy killing, we see Irish-Catholic Pryor family at odds with their electronics salesman father Jack (Tom Verica). Helen (Gail O’Grady) sees no need for more children and is starting to question whether there’s more to life than her happy household, provocation for this search coming from new friend Rebeca Sandstrom (Virginia Madsen). Son JJ (Will Estes) quits the high school football team, dashing his father’s dreams that the youth will some day play wide receiver for Notre Dame. Patty (Sarah Ramos) heads to a spelling bee and practices with everyone’s dialogue. Meg (Snow) gets a chance to dance on “Bandstand,” and Jack says no.
It’s the “Bandstand” drama that drives the pilot as Meg and her friend Roxanne Bojarksi (Vanessa Lengies) stand outside the WFIL studios in the hopes of dancing on Dick Clark’s TV show. Bojarski gets them in via an unseen makeout session with the guy who says who’s in and who isn’t; Meg goes, gets asked to dance by a regular and is splashed on TV screens across Philly, including her father’s store. He grounds her for disobeying and lying, though he shows a soft side by letting her go to another “Bandstand” after she gets a callback.
To Meg, played with a captivating wide-eyed wonder by Snow, the show represents “something better,” a way out, the fulfillment of a dream. Roxanne, while less loft in her ambitions, becomes Meg’s springboard — she’s a doer, a person who doesn’t accept no and forges ahead with chutzpah. As written so exquisitely in the pilot, Meg is perfectly poised for transition, a microcosm of American society embodied by a teenage girl whose sense of longing is not tied to any particular emptiness; she’s just thrilled by the thought of a quest.
Writers treat her gently — she’s the one in the clouds while JJ is being kicked around in the dirt. “Dreams’ ” only touch of heavy-handedness comes in the father-son confrontations; JJ doesn’t see eye to eye with dad, who sees no room for compromise. They argue — the hostility at the dinner table even leads to JJ losing his girlfriend — and it takes the p.o.v. of the youngest Pryor, handicapped Will (Ethan Dampf), to shed new light on the situation.
Estes plays JJ with considerable intensity; it’s a bit much in the debut but could be a wellspring for this character as he deals with the death of the president and his own future. Patty is an out-and-out brat, and Ramos does it right, just as Dampf plays the unassuming youngest child. For once, children aren’t upstaging the rest of the cast.
Few shows are so technically splendid. The Philly streets, with a light snow falling, the electronics shop full of black-and-white TVs, the comfortable yet unassuming home — sets, costumes and tenor are all spot on. Casting couldn’t be better, even if O’Grady is still a bit too sexy to be playing the mother of four. In future episodes, contempo musicians are cast in the roles of ’60s stars — Michelle Branch as Lesley Gore, for example — that could be some of the season’s best stunt casting.
In the opener, show benefits from the presence of Dick Clark, who brings classic “Bandstand” videotape to the show. TV perfs of Clark and the Beach Boys are artfully worked into the hourlong and, for some audience member, may well be a key in bringing them back for more.