Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

It’s pretty easy to complain about the evolution of the television drama in 2004 because the market is largely saturated with various “Law & Order” and in the case of CBS “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” spin-offs. Then, there are the various military legal dramas like “JAG” and “NCIS.”

However, the state of the television drama goes beyond that obvious conclusion. What about all of these workplace dramas? ABC’s “Boston Legal” is going to pick up where the “The Practice” left off last season; NBC has an assortment of dramas centered around places of employment including “ER,” “Third Watch,” “Crossing Jordan,” and the brand new “Medical Investigation,” “LAX,” and “Hawaii.” Fox has “North Shore” and”¦very little else in that department right now.

However, while all of these procedural dramas generally based either in a legal or medical setting (or both), something seems to have escaped the television drama landscape:

The family centered drama.

Sure, there are shows out there that incorporate family based storylines into their scripts. “Joan of Arcadia” deals heavily with family issues, but that largely gets lost in the fact that Joan (Amber Tamblyn) talks to God and “does his work” during many of the episodes. It could be argued that “The O.C.” is a family drama since the Cohen and Cooper families are heavily involved. However, with all the other “stuff” going on there, calling that show a family drama would be on par with calling “ER” a show just about life in an emergency room. It doesn’t quite cut it.

The bottom line is though people might be able to nit pick and find several examples of where the family is the dominant element in a drama, the sub-genre (I’ll take the liberty and label it that way) is largely lacking except for some of the WB shows like “7th Heaven,” “Everwood,” the new “Jack & Bobby,” and the subject of the rest of this column, NBC’s “American Dreams.”

“American Dreams,” which takes place in 1965 Philadelphia, is set largely around the Pryor and Walker families and the various political and cultural issues at the time. The Pryors are white, Catholic, God-fearing folks and the Walkers are African-American and living in a different part of time. That is where some of the drama comes from since in 1965, people generally weren’t in favor of the whole “black people being equal to white people” thing that’s become fairly popular in the last several decades.

However, the show starts with Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow), a (now) 17-year-old girl who’s undergone some very major character changes that are not only very engaging, but real and relevant at the same time. When the show began in 2002, Meg was a naïve 15-year-old girl whose main goal was to take advantage of the opportunity to appear on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” show as one of the famous dancers in the audience with her friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies). However, as the third season gets under way, fans of the show have seen Meg grow up considerably and go through a painful break up with a boy she cared about, and more importantly, taking part in various protests against issues she doesn’t believe in. Most prominently that includes the (at that time) developing war in Vietnam. She began protesting the war against her fathe’s wishes, but did so primarily because her oldest brother J.J. (Will Estes) was sent there on a military tour.

The storylines also follow J.J. through his tour in Vietnam and the various hardships that war can take on an individual story. The battle scenes are fairly generic and uninspiring. However, the numerous stories are written differently and in a way that really shows how close the family is and how much everyone is affected by one part of that family unit being gone. Everyone loves him, everyone misses him, and everyone seems a bit more hollow inside when he is gone and in a situation where he might die. J.J.’s life gets more complicated when his ex-girlfriend/ex-fiancé/whatever they might be, Beth (Rachel Boston), gets pregnant with their child out of wedlock and moves in with the Pryor family to have the baby despite it rubbing against the grain of social norms at the time.

Several other storylines are not only captivating but germane to the time as well. The Pryor and Walker families are connected in that the Jack Pryor, patriarch of the family (Tom Verica) and Henry Walker, the patriarch of his family (Jonathan Adams) are in business together as Pryor owns a small chain of electronics stores in different parts of town. Their relationship is constantly put to the test, not only for the racial implications, but also from a business and pop culture point of view. After all, this was about the time when the shopping mall was beginning to crop up in many areas putting small business like the one Pryor owns in potential jeopardy. While that storyline hasn’t been fleshed out at all, the mere mention of the word “mall” prompts the possible introduction of a storyline that could put the entire Pryor family (and consequently, the Walker family) in jeopardy.

However, the stories largely revert back to the Pryor family and everything that’s going on in their lives. In addition to the solid parental foundation provided by Jack Pryor and his wife, Helen (Gail O’Grady, “NYPD Blue”) and J.J. and Meg, the Pryors have two more kids, Patty (Sarah Ramos) and Will (Ethan Dampf). For the most part, these two are involved in secondary storylines, but over the last two seasons, the family did have to endure Will’s battle with Polio, another heart wrenching exercise that really brought the family together.

That family structure becomes even more evident during the trademark family dinner scenes where mother, father and children engage in a series of rapid fire conversations touching on several different subjects. The direction often incorporates rapid cuts from each character speaking to one another. It demonstrates how much is going on in the family, but also how they are always there for one another either for support or just for those sarcastic comments that family members of any generation know how to make.

The third season of “American Dreams” premiered on Sunday (Sept. 26) and picked up where it left off at the end of Season Two, relying on its two hooks that make it different from any other drama on television: focus on the family unit and focus in a different time in history. Sometimes family dramas aren’t compelling television (anyone remember “Citizen Baines?”). That also applies to shows set in different times in history (Oh, where have you gone “Oliver Beene?”). However, in this case, the show works. First, the sets and costumes appear to be right on par with what life might have been like in 1965. Next, the actors give fine performances every week starting with Jack (Verica), Helen (O’Grady), and Meg (Snow) and it appears to trickle all the way down. Finally, and most importantly, the stories being told are not only appealing, but they also appear to be either very well researched by those who weren’t living in Philadelphia in 1965 or maybe even written by those who lived there at that time. Either way, the show is a great entity all around.

The problem with the “American Dreams” is it receives tepid ratings, at best. According to a Sept. 27 article posted on Zap2it.com, the third season premiere languished in third place in its timeslot with somewhere between eight and nine million viewers. The show finished behind the part campy, part uplifting “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and CBS’s new baseball drama, “Clubhouse.” When the popular “Cold Case” and the immortal “The Simpsons” return to CBS and Fox respectively, “American Dreams” could be in even more trouble. With a budget that must be higher than many other shows considering the sets, costumes and the number of characters regularly involved in storylines, it’s hard to say how much longer NBC will be willing to stick with a show like this when they could just as easily extend “Dateline NBC” and extra hour or air yet another episode of “Law & Order” and get equal, if not better ratings.

So, this is not only a review of sorts, it’s a reminder to the television viewing public that there’s more to television drama than the shows on HBO, FX, or anything that starts with “Law & Order” or “CSI.”

That’s why this is a promotional statement for “American Dreams.”

If you give it a chance, you might see some good television.

— Coogan