Culture Wars: The Prequel

History and myth converge in American Dreams' take on the 1960s

American Dreams
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The times they are a-changin'," Bob Dylan declared with a growl in 1964, issuing an updated emancipation proclamation for all who suffered under the traditional moral and political order. The sense of apocalyptic inevitability that drove Dylan—the certainty that this revolution was jolting households across America, provides the starting point for NBC's bold family drama, American Dreams.

Set in working-class Philadelphia and centered on the Pryors, an Irish-Catholic family, the show is planted right on the cracks that emerged in the 1960s as subterranean America got all shook up. A new age was born, and, in the way that creation myths usually do, the '60s have fascinated us ever since. So it's not surprising that American Dreams traffics in its fair share of myth. But it also makes a credible effort to understand and interpret those years, and in so doing gives Christians a poignant glimpse of the self-understandings that shape our troubled times.

Tension and stress lurk in nearly every scene, as transgression of established norms seems, almost week by week, to become easier and more alluring. The show's most jagged moments occur between Jack and Helen Pryor, the young parents of four children ranging from ages 7 to 18.

It doesn't take long to see that their marriage is meant to prefigure the culture wars that have dominated American public life in the aftermath of the '60s—Jack defaults to an embattled mid-century Roman Catholicism, while Helen cautiously moves toward less traditional visions of freedom.

In the opening episodes, Helen, played by Gail O'Grady, dares to move from participating in a neighborhood reading circle to auditing her first college class, in European literature, ...

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