American Dreams

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
American Dreams TV Poster Image
Evocative retrospective drama follows changes of the '60s.

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

The series deals thoughtfully with evocative topics such as race relations, gender inequality, war, and the generational divide as they relate to historical events in the 1960s. The issues are explored from different angles through the diverse characters, often bringing them in conflict with each other. The fact that gender roles are strictly defined reflects the time, but many characters' views on the subject evolve as the series goes on. Recurring themes of perseverance even in the face of great struggles. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

There's good and bad to every character, and each example of negative behavior also serves as an opportunity for positive growth. With few exceptions, all show a willingness to adapt to the changing time, facilitated best by effective communication. Within the Pryor family, the parents love and are concerned for their children, and the kids try their best to balance their sense of obligation with their own priorities. 

Violence

Fistfights, a car accident, riots, and some war scenes. Violent topics such as the Kennedy assassination are discussed. A supporting character dies. 

Sex

Teens kiss and share some physical moments. Girls are shown in bras. Friends talk about "putting out," "going all the way," and related issues such as birth control. In at least one case, premarital sex results in an unplanned pregnancy. 

Language

Rarely "hell," "piss," and "damn."  

Consumerism

Cultural references such as American Bandstand, plus Philadelphia institutions such as Temple University and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many people smoke, including teens, often doing so inside businesses and even at school. Some drinking, but mostly among adults. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Dreams is an evocative drama series set in the 1960s, so there's a lot of behavior that seems inappropriate today but is meant to reflect the era. Most noticeable are instances of racial bigotry -- ranging from rude comments directed at an African-American student in a predominantly white school, to an all-out inner-city riot scene -- and stringent gender roles that stand out in the central family's home. Teens rebel against their parents' rules and defy authority, in some cases engaging in behavior such as smoking and premarital sex. Tense scenes of war, racial conflict, and even family disagreements might concern sensitive viewers. On the other hand, there are powerful themes that celebrate family bonds and illustrate the importance of staying true to your beliefs. This show keeps iffy content to a minimum and explores weighty issues families can discuss in more depth. 

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What's the story?

AMERICAN DREAMS is a family-centric drama series set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s. It follows the Pryor family of Philadelphia as cultural changes and world tensions challenge long-held traditions and pull them in unpredictable directions. There's Meg (Brittany Snow), a reliably well-behaved teen whose best friend, Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies), helps her break out of her shell (and defy her parents) and land a regular dancing spot on American Bandstand. Older brother JJ (Will Estes) often butts heads with his dad (Tom Verica) over conflicting plans for his future, and eventually their mom (Gail O'Grady) starts to question her own life path with the help of an open-minded new friend. Younger siblings Patty (Sarah Ramos) and Will (Ethan Dampf) feel the effects of momentous events such as a presidential assassination, even if they're somewhat sheltered from the racial tension and building Vietnam conflict. For better or worse, as the times change, the Pryors find their lives changing along with them.

Is it any good?

This engrossing series was deceivingly short-lived, packing its mere three seasons with a lot of fantastic representations of the struggles and triumphs of average people during this turning point in American history. It excels at showing the human fallout of events such as the civil rights movement, race riots, and the Vietnam War from different points of view, often split down lines of gender, race, class, or generation. Each character evolves from the show's start to its end, and not every story has a happy ending. In other words, it makes a concerted effort to stay pretty true to real life, inasmuch as a fictional show possibly can.

American Dreams' most recognizable sights and sounds take place in the American Bandstand studio, where modern singers replicate stage performances, and some clever filming tricks make you feel as if you're actually watching Dick Clark at the helm. Set to a great soundtrack of the rock-'n'-roll era, this series evokes the emotions and uncertainties of the time, even as it underscores the value of family relationships and an open discourse within the home. The ride is an emotional one, given the implications of the issues at hand and the real-life struggles of those whose stories the characters recreate, but knowing the general outcome ahead of time should help tweens process the often tense content. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why the 1960s were such a formative era in America's history. In what ways is our country better off now than it was before that time? Have all citizens benefited from the changes that came out of that decade? Which issues still affect the quality of life in America?

  • How does this show present the Vietnam War? Which factors led to the conflict? Why did the United States get involved? Is war inevitable when two sides have vast ideological differences? 

  • In what ways does this show use music to augment its setting and themes? What does the music of the '60s convey about what people thought and felt at the time? Can you think of examples that evoke celebration? Protest? How does the music contrast with what's popular today?  

TV details

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