DVD Review: The Great American Dream Machine

Television is a media which rarely likes to surprise an audience. People know what to expect when they tune into a TV show. They know Walking Dead is going to feature zombies. They know that 60 Minutes will interview and investigate a subject that’s been hyped during the afternoon’s NFL games. They know who is going to visit the boys on The Big Bang Theory. Television does its best to keep audience oriented by having a host on a variety show and news program to tie things together. During a show, they tease viewers about upcoming segments right before commercials. TV wants viewers to never feel lost about what they’re watching for fear they’ll click over to a show that’s less disorienting. The Great American Dream Machine destroyed all those expectations when it aired on PBS in 1971. The show had no host or narrator. Segments flowed from documentaries, performances, sketches, animation and completely odd pieces that probably still can’t be explained 44 years later. This was truly omnibus television which might have made it confusing in the past, but engrossing viewing for us future viewers.

The point of the show is to ponder what Americans expect from the American Dream. Who among us are living the dream? The first episode gets things started right with a feature on Evel Knievel. Instead of merely having the daredevil talk about his various death defying stunts, they intercut with Evel’s surgeon that reviews various X-rays to review all the broken bones inside his body. Martin Mull wrote an amazing song about Evel that plays in the background. While not the host, Marshall Efron was the center of various sketches. He has an amazing quiz on olive sizes since they vary from Giant, Jumbo and Colossal. He also does a sketch about a car graveyard. Marshal would go on to host Marshall Efron’s Illustrated, Simplified, and Painless Sunday School on CBS’s Sunday morning lineup. Writer Studs Terkel hosts a round table discussion at a bar between various people. He brings out their opinions to give a sense of the times. There’s also just random people on the street answers to common questions. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. shows up to read a few pages out of Slaughterhouse Five. Big Daddy Ed Roth shows off his custom cars and Rat Fink items.

The only constant element of the show was the opening featuring two mine white faces on black background. The duo lip sync to various musical pieces. If you look carefully, you’ll notice one of the faces belongs to a young Chevy Chase nearly four years before Saturday Night Live. The biggest star to get truly launched by the show is Andy Rooney. This was where he laid the groundwork for his closing segment on Sixty Minutes. He sits at a table and talks for a few minutes on a subject. In the time just before Watergate, Rooney talks about the thankless life of a politician. He also hints at what it takes for a person to think they can fix society.

It’s hard to figure out how many episodes were made. The first season was 90 minutes. When it was rerun a year later, they had edited it down to 60 minutes which explains why Marshall Efron’s audio introductions says these are “highlights.” The show didn’t last long because of conservative critics which is a shame since this the show does espouse so much of what was great about living in America in 1971. But some people can’t enjoy life.

The Great American Dream Machine is the type of show that people would travel to a television museum to get glimpse of old episodes. Now you can enjoy all goodness at home. This is a treasure chest for pop culture mavens and fans of historical fun. So many people found bigger careers after the show. Elements of the show ended up as part of The Groove Tube movie. The impact of The Great American Dream Machine can be felt in something as simple as Zoom with the documentary elements. Hard to not imagine the folks behind USA’s Night Flight didn’t think of this show as they programmed those late hours. This is an amazing find which will always make you wonder what’s next.

The video is 1:33:1 full frame. The video is sourced from what appears to be standard definition master tapes. There’s a glitch now and then, but nothing that ruins the experience. The audio is mono, but loud enough to make you feel the dreams of others.

No bonus features.

The Great American Dream Machine remains great.

S’more Entertainment presents The Great American Dream Machine. Starring: Chevy Chase, Andy Rooney, Marshall Efron and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Running Time: 12 hours and 57 minutes. Released: October 20, 2015

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