American Dreams took a nasty turn in the episode for January 30, 2005. The father refused to vote as the cops wanted him to on a city council selection to the Police Commission. So, JJ, the son, was waylaid by a couple of patrolmen and beaten up. Thus did the Philadelphia police take care of justice thirty-five years ago, at least according to a TV show. I suspect it's not far off the mark. The question it raises is whether things have changed very much over the past decades or whether the police continue to employ extra-legal persuasions in cities around the nation. So called abuse of power is an inevitable feature of policing. Power corrupts and cops have power. That's why they always have to be watched carefully. Mostly, they deal with people who don't have a lot of credibility in the community. So it's not hard to get away with a certain amount of rough stuff. It'll be interesting to see how this series, which is now on a hiatus until March, deals with JJ's beating. It would be even more interesting to know what percentage of the people think the cops have the right to engage in the methods they used on JJ. But that's a figure social science will never reveal to us.

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The episode of American Dreams last night (January 2, 2005) was fairly ho-hum. That's not to say it wasn't watchable, but the producers have marched themselves into a series of cliches which, now, have to be allowed to play themselves out. JJ, home from Vietnam and still recuperating from injuries, has been assigned to a Marine recruiting office and is going through the doubts any sane person would about enticing young men to offer themselves up to the same sort of experiences he has just endured. The mother, already doubtful about the war, is being led, unknown to her husband, into more serious anti-war activities. And the father seems to be trying honorably to shake off the Neanderthalism that encrusted him from the 1950s. These are all topics we've seen often, and we've developed expectations about them. Whether working them through can keep the series vital over the coming weeks is the main question confronting the program right now.

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I have mixed feelings about the NBS Sunday night series, American Dreams.  It takes up vital themes from the 1960s, but some of the characters are so vacuous it's hard to warm up to them. Maybe it's because I had daughters myself that I don't enjoy seeing teenage girls portrayed as imbeciles. Meg, the older daughter of the supposedly typical family, the Pryors, makes an occasional stab at likableness but she's so astoundingly ignorant it's hard for her to break through to anything solid. In the episode for October 10, 2004, she is trying to direct a school production of Henry V, but loses heart because the play is about -- gasp -- Englishmen, and who can care about them? Her teacher, a nun on the verge of rebellion, convinces her she can stage the play as though it were set in Vietnam and then Meg perks right up. This is relevance with a vengeance. I had almost thought that weary mainstay of 1960s educational theory had died a deserved death, but on TV, evidently, anything that was once paraded as hotshot intellectualism can still be thought to elevate. I will say they are doing more interesting things with the father, Jack, than they did last year. He used to be little more than a good-hearted closed-minded bigot, but he now seems to be learning some things, including the truth that black people are not treated with perfect respect by the Philadelphia police. I have hopes for him, and, actually, maybe for Meg too, although it's hard to see how she has reached her late teenage years with a head as empty as hers.

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