THE EPISODE of American Dreams that airs tonight may be the last one ever. After two-and-a-half years of good ratings, more than half of the audience has abandoned it (many of these viewers have migrated to ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition).
NBC wants to keep the show around. Three weeks ago, the network moved it from Sunday to Wednesday, in order to pair it with two other topical dramas, The West Wing and Law & Order. But it now has to compete with ABC's ratings beast Lost. If fans don't tune in again, the network says they may have no other choice than to drop American Dreams.
Which is a shame. American Dreams is high class television. The show features an ensemble cast and the creators have visually captured the era--the 1960s--with precision: the costumes, the lingo, the props. (In one scene a priest is smoking a cigarette while walking on his school's football field.) The stories are well written and layered. The characters are likeable and the show is family friendly. The soundtrack, which features everything from Stevie Wonder to The Kinks to Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones is also fantastic.
But most importantly, American Dreams, though set in the '60s, is a contemporary show in that it tells us something about how we got where we are as a country. The nation changed forever during the 1960s and on American Dreams we get see these transitions through the everyday experiences of normal Americans. And since the show mostly steers away from PC themes we can judge for ourselves.
American Dreams shows us the world through the eyes of a pair of young, middle class, Catholic families living in Philadelphia: the Pryors and the Walkers, who are white and black respectively.
The cultural and political issues that sprang up in the '60s, such as racism, the sexual revolution, birth control, teen marriage, corrupt city politics, and a country divided over war, are played out against the backdrop and music of real footage from American Bandstand, the show that the main character, Meg Pryor, and her best friend Roxanne dance on every day. (A neat touch is that old black and white kinescopes of American Bandstand are edited in with guest stars playing the '60s musicians.)
As the series began, the world the Pryors and Walkers live in mourned over John F. Kennedy. For the past year, American Dreams has focused on the Vietnam war, both at home and abroad as the conflict grew from 1965 to 1966. The Pryors' oldest son J.J., a football star turned Marine, went MIA in the Cambodian jungle for several episodes (though viewers knew he was alive) and was held captive in Saigon, wounded. He eventually woke up in a military hospital where he finds out that some of his friends were killed.
Meanwhile, Meg, who has been shedding her good girl image while being swept up in the antiwar movement, is surprised to learn that her brother finds her actions disloyal, rather than helpful. Her changing political awareness provides much of the show's drama. Last year, after being assigned to direct Henry V at school, she gave the play an antiwar twist. In the season finale last year, she was arrested at a protest, which hindered her father's campaign for city council. Her then-boyfriend burnt down a building in an antiwar demonstration. In the episode that airs tonight, he reappears and asks Meg if she will dodge the draft will him.
Lately, Meg has also found herself wondering if her friendship with black track star Sam Walker, whose father works in her father's store, is platonic. "We might not be just friends," she says as the Rolling Stones's "Playing With Fire" plays in the background.
Throughout all this she remains dedicated to dancing on American Bandstand, her refuge from the drama and political turmoil that inhabits the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, at home, her mother Helen faces the pressures of managing both a home and family. A devout Catholic, she wrestles with the question of birth control after deciding she doesn't want any more children, and has to deal with her family, who is frustrated because she takes a job. She also has to negotiate a relationship with the Playboy playmate who moved in next store and whose son dates Meg.
Jack, the father, a prickly and old fashioned guy, is having his mind changed about race, mostly due to his relationship with Henry Walker, the manager of his television store. And the youngest brother, Will, is trying to fit in at school after surviving polio while the youngest sister Patty has to strike a balance between her school and social life.
The signs are not good that American Dreams will survive. In addition to the time-slot shuffling, three of the show's actors have signed on to other TV pilots for next season.
Hopefully tonight a few more people will tune in to help spare TV viewers yet another time-slot occupied by a reality show or a Law & Order spin-off.
Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.