“Chasin’ The American Dream” written by veteran television and album composer Artie Butler as sung by Ty Barkley. Flutes, horns, etc. It’s your average, family-oriented-drama theme song.
Interesting Dated References: Being stressed out about a $600 mortgage; Being concerned about paying your mortgage; An $80,000 home being super-huge and fancy; a boy in his teens being really excited about Dagwood sandwiches.
Best Line: Said by father in reference to his family — “God forbid we have a real crisis. This boat would probably sink in about five minutes”
Social Context: White flight, gentrification, suburban malaise, inner-city living, and other things people were concerned about in the 80s, during that time right before all of America was turned into one giant homogenized pile of shit, littered with gas stations and convenience stores.
Summary: American Dream begins with loving dad Danny Novak (Stephen Macht) stuck in Chicago during evening rush hour traffic. By the time he arrives at his home in Arlington Heights it’s after dark. His ungrateful sons bum money for dinner, and his wife Donna informs him that they have to drive back to Chicago to pick up their youngest daughter from her field trip.
As if that wasn’t enough, Donna also tells him she’s pregnant. The guy has barely had a chance to get his shoes off or drink the Chivas Regal she immediately poured for him when he walked in the door. On the drive back to the city, they talk about Donna’s dad who is old and fell down, and discuss that he should probably come live with them.
The next morning, the parents announce to the asshole sons (and quiet daughter) that a new baby is on the way. The sons immediately revolt and complain about space, room allotment, and other things unappreciative white children complain about.
After seeing the outrageous cost of a bigger suburban home and hearing his son make an uninformed, racial comment, Danny decides to go looking for homes in the inner city. He stops at a hot dog stand, and then talks to an old man posting a for-sale sign on a run down home right next to an El stop (Chicago’s elevated rapid transit system).
Later that night, he rants to his wife about their kids and the suburbs, and about how shitty life is for them. He says the suburbs are “nothing but malls and crabgrass.” It gets pretty deep as Danny states he was “conned by the American Dream.” Granted, we now know the suburbs are festering piles of mediocrity and substance abuse, but for 1981, this is pretty forward-thinking stuff.
The next day, Donna realizes her children are becoming totally selfish, suburban assholes, and she decides they should move to the city. She rushes to her husband’s workplace (sports department manager at Marshall Fields) to inform him they should buy the house in the city.
But she has to wait for a young John Malkovich to finish doing his sales pitch about roller skates before she can interrupt. They they go to lunch and decide the move will be good for the family.
Then they immediately move to the city without ever addressing how they sold their house in Arlington Heights, which to this day is so glutted with unsold homes it affects the entire north-eastern area of Illinois, making it totally fucking impossible for people to sell their home or even get the bank to foreclose on their home, thereby making it impossible for people to move on with their lives or derive any enjoyment out of existence.
After moving in, followed by a Chicago scenery montage, the oldest boy, Casey, and the youngest boy, Todd, each have their own trouble with the rough and gruff nature of inner-city schools. Casey is intimidated by the more aggressive basketball program and is upset he doesn’t get any time on the court. Loving dad Danny decides to try to intervene by talking to the coach (who he grew up with). This leads to more resentment from Casey, and a father/son talk.
I should mention that the coach is played by John Karlen who was previously featured on The Betamax Rundown in The Dark Ride.
Meanwhile, Todd has a run-in with a 30-year-old bully who is apparently still in junior high. After getting punched, Todd cries like a little baby. Naturally this makes his mother upset and frustrated with city life. She complains to her dad, who offers sage advice about violence, growing up, etc.
Then, because it’s a pilot, everything gets resolved in the span of five minutes. The rundown house is suddenly totally remodeled, Todd loves basketball, Casey loves learning to box, and mom is totally fucking happy with life. The show ends with the brothers walking gayly together to school, grandpa escorting the youngest daughter to her school, and dad riding to work on his bike.
The pilot starts out fairly bleak and honest, but by the end it suffers a little too much from the formulaic quick-resolve of all problems. Macht does a nice job as the frustrated father, and the rest of the cast, minus the asshole children, put in good performances. Lots of early 80s Chicago scenery may be of interest to some.
American Dream was picked up for production. Six episodes were filmed, but only four of them aired before the network pulled the plug. Author Todd Gitlin focuses a chapter on the production of American Dream in his book Inside Prime Time. Therein he details a troublesome production filled with meddling executives making revisions and tweaks to an honest and raw script. Initial filming began with Ned Beatty as the father, but various conflicts led to the role being recast with Macht. From there, the scripts were rewritten, show runners changed, and plotlines dumped. By the time it went to air mid-season, all the executives behind the production had moved on to other more action-oriented projects, and the slow drama ofAmerican Dream was quietly pulled from the line-up.
Poster and Box Art: A generic box for an abandoned show. It looks like little thought was put into this.
Availability: You might find used VHS on eBay. Unfortunately Jay Leno released a stand-up video called “THe American Dream” which will probably hinder your search. I was unable to find any copies of the other episodes that aired.