California Dreams is an enigma. People seem to remember it fondly, but it had such poor DVD sales the final season was never released. Jimmy Fallon even invited the cast on his show when it looked like he was never going to get a Saved by the Bell reunion. I rarely see anything negative about the series, even about the last two seasons I hated; the closest thing I usually see is about how useless the extended Garrison family was, and they didn’t stick around long in the grand scheme of things. But none of the cast really went on to become well known, and the series has largely been forgotten, not even a blip on most people’s radars.
For comparison sake, Saved by the Bell Reviewed regularly gets five hundred hits a day, even nearly a year after I finished that project. This one is lucky to get a hundred.
So why is it California Dreams has such a good reputation without the accompanying staying power in nostalgic memory that Saved by the Bell has enjoyed?
Personally, I blame it on having some very talented writers who weren’t given much direction where to take the show. Sure, it was quite obvious in the first season and even the second that this was supposed to be a dramatically different show from Peter Engel’s biggest hit: rather than focusing on the school lives of our character, we would see them form a band and try to make it big in show business. We’ll see another aspect of teenage life: the making of dreams and how real life and growing up interferes with and changes what we previously thought we wanted.
And, for a time, it worked. Despite the uselessness of the Garrison family as a framing device, the first two seasons were incredible, with some great writing, compelling characters, and memorable plots. I dare say that, at its best, California Dreams deserved to win some awards, and they certainly should have been nominated for more than The New Class. It was just different enough from the original.
Even Sly, as much as I hate him, was a well-written character. Recall that my two least favorite characters on The New Class were Brian and Tony. I hated them because they were poorly conceived, written, and just overall useless. I hate Sly for personality traits I think the writers intended to give him, and I can’t really fault the show for that. It would be like watching a James Bond film and getting mad at the villains for being too villainous. It worked.
So what happened?
Brent Gore’s exit might have been the worst thing to happen to this show. Though it had already been showing signs of morphing in its second season, the third was nearly a complete reboot. Suddenly, Jake was the leader of the band, and Sly’s dopey and horribly written cousin was kind-of sorta not really filling Matt’s role on the show. More and more plots started revolving around life in high school, and the band itself was relegated to a supporting role, being pulled out on occasion to remind us it existed. This was not the same show I reviewed in its first two seasons.
Yet the third season wasn’t terrible per se; it was just very different, adhering more closely than before to the tried and true Saved by the Bell formula nearly every Engel-verse show follows.
The same can’t be said for the final two seasons, where the writers seem to be phoning in the plots, not giving a shit anymore and barely putting any effort into distinguishing this from so many other Engel-verse shows. It was painful to sit through because I’ve seen all the plots so many times on other shows. I’m convinced this is the era of quantity over quality for Peter Engel, and he long ago gave up when he realized the California Dreams were never going to be a household name like the Saved by the Bell gang, but they were getting good enough ratings not to be cancelled.
Why, then, was the last episode so damned good? I have a theory: Ron Solomon really did care about this show, and it probably killed him they had gotten so formulaic to the point you could drop in the cast of any other Engel-verse show without consequence. So he decided to give it a send-off worthy of the potential it once showed. California Dreams was going to have a better ending than any other Engel-verse show, one that jaded, cynical critics would look back at twenty years later and realize how good it was.
And it worked. After yawning through most of the last two seasons, it was such a pleasant surprise to watch the final episode and see so much actual effort being put into it. Granted, it will still never stack up to classic final episodes like M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Cheers. But, for a TNBC show, the finale is damned good, and it’s a shame most people will never see it, if for no other reason than they have no idea what California Dreams is other than a song by the Mamas and the Papas.
So why weren’t more episodes like this? Why give such few shits about a show with so much potential? I think the answer comes down to this: being different from Saved by the Bell wasn’t garnering the ratings. The NBC execs probably wanted a new Saved by the Bell, especially with the mothership going off the air and no guarantees for The New Class and The College Years. So, Engel and Solomon did what they had to do to keep it on the air: they sold out.
And it makes sense: think of all the critically acclaimed shows that, despite being good, never got the ratings: Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, Arrested Development, Star Trek, Everwood, Jack & Bobby, just to name a few. Being good doesn’t guarantee your show will be a commercial success, and that’s one of the major flaws of our entertainment industry. Fortunately, things are beginning to change with streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime investing in quality programs, but it’s still true that your show can be really good and never make money.
And that’s the story of California Dreams to me: a good premise and great talent flushed down the drain to make a few bucks.
But let’s not let this cloud our judgment of this show. Let’s always remember this show for what it was at its best. After all, when it comes down to it, I’d rather rewatch this show any day over The New Class and The College Years.
I reviewed this show largely because it kept coming up on Saved by the Bell Reviewed. So many of you remembered it so fondly that I decided I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Like the Saved by the Bell franchise, I had never watched this show prior to reviewing it. And, as you can probably tell, I’m very glad I did.
I’m feeling it’s time for a break from the Engel-verse, though. I’ve been at this for four years, and have now reviewed five of Peter Engel’s series. I’m a bit tired right now, and I’m beginning to be known as the person who reviews Engel-verse series. Some of you are even already asking if I’m planning on reviewing City Guys or Hang Time next.
And there was a time I wanted to review all of TNBC’s offerings. What I’ve come to realize, though, is I’m essentially just going to be reviewing the same plots over and over again if I do, and that prospect doesn’t particularly appeal to me. I have a feeling I’d eventually be reduced to just going, “Saved by the Bell already did that!” over and over again. Besides, I never wanted to become the internet’s foremost expert on Peter Engel shows.
So my next project I have in mind is going to be a little different. I want to do a blog on One Season Wonders. I’ve always been fascinated by shows which are cancelled after one season and whether they’re worth a second look. Of course, there are some that have become cult favorites in the age of DVD and Netflix, but I also want to review some of the oddities of the past, many of them forgotten, such as The Ugliest Girl in Town or Cop Rock.
So keep an eye out for that. I’ll be launching it soon and will post on Facebook when it’s ready.
In the meantime, I wanted to thank you all for following this blog over the last two years. It’s been such an honor to relive this show with you as it brought back memories for you. Seeing your comments every week kept me going, and I was always amazed by how respectful you all were, even when you disagreed with me.
I was going to do a bonus post or two, but I’m not sure I have much more to say about Califronia Dreams. There’s not much more out there. No, this is a good place to end.
So thanks for taking this journey with me, and I hope you’ll join me for One Season Wonders when it’s launched soon.
Until then, I’m always your friend, Chris the Geek.