California Dreams, or, at least the first season of it, seems like a bold experiment on behalf of Peter Engel. It’s a lot less derivative from Saved by the Bell than many of his later shows will be and seems to have a solid footing to follow the success of Engel’s most famous show. The music aspect actually works, despite me not liking many of their songs. A group of teenagers trying to get a rock band off the ground is something we can believe because we all knew those kids in high school who were trying to make names for themselves.
The problem I see with the show isn’t the family sitcom format that will be jettisoned next season. After all, I think even the writers realized how pointless the extended members of the Garrison family were and worked to put the band at the forefront as often as possible. The problem is that they don’t really do anything most of the season. When I think budding garage bands, I want to see the creative struggles of young musicians trying to find their way in a hostile creative world. We can have some stuff about their personal lives, but it seems as if that’s the primary focus, with the band aspect being a background gimmick.
As much as I dislike “The First Gig,” we needed more stuff like the primary plot in that episode: the band’s gig disrupting Richard’s planned dream vacation. We need to see that being in a band takes time and patience and has an emotional impact on those involved. The only other episodes where I think that the pressure of being in a band is really featured are “Beat of His Own Dream” and “Double Date.” The rest is just kind of following the band’s personal lives, with unquestioned success for the band being a given.
Yeah, the band thing needed to be more of a focus for the show rather than an afterthought. As a result, we get a lot of unevenness this season with the show acting like it doesn’t quite know where to go. The plots usually end up boring contrivances and the subplots felt so phoned in they’re barely memorable. Even the family sitcom element of it are severely underdeveloped, as Melody and Dennis barely appear over the season and Richard’s role is severely limited. Why even have a family sitcom if you’re not going to have most of the family appear during the season.
Of course, the music does feel like the writers aren’t paying attention to what’s actually popular in the music world. With the Seattle music scene about to explode with grunge, it’s kind of sad they think the California Dreams are a rock band. They are, at best, adult alternative, and, at worst, easy listening. There’s nothing rocking about them, and I laugh every time Matt cites The Beatles as one of his influences, because I think the writers don’t understand what a musical influence is. It would be like if Justin Bieber claimed he were influenced by Kurt Cobain: you’re just picking a random big name the viewers will recognize because you don’t want to have music any more threatening than you’d expect to find on an ’80s compilation infomercial.
For its faults, though, I can’t bring myself to hate this show, not like I do one of Engel’s other infamous shows, The New Class. It feels like this show’s heart is in the right place even if the writing could use some first aid, and, I have to give it to them: this season, they only directly ripped off Saved by the Bell once, whereas every first season episode of The New Class was plagiarized.
I think i understand why this was saved from cancellation after the first season: there is definitely potential present in the show. With some tweaking and focus, I think they actually could have been as classic a show as Saved by the Bell. Of course, I’ve already had some indication that this is not the direction they went (disclaimer: I’ve already reviewed the first episode of season two), but we’ll deal with that as it come. For now, I could see this as a show I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t been so distracted by Power Rangers on Fox Kids.
As a side note, Wikipedia claims the original premise for the show was that the Garrisons moved to California from the Midwest, where Matt and Jenny form a band. If this was the case, it was never established on the show and, in fact, all indications are that at least Matt, Jenny, Sly, and Tiffani has known each other a long time. I don’t buy this as an actual plot of the show whether it was in the producers’ minds or not.
Let’s talk characters.
Like it or not, Matt was obviously intended to be the central character of this show. It’s interesting to compare him to characters like Happy Days‘s Richie Cunningham, 90210‘s Brandon Walsh, or the entire Winslow family from Family Matters, all of whom were originally intended to be the central characters on their respective shows but were quickly overshadowed by more popular breakout characters. Like the rest, Matt is sort of bland, without much personality of his own and depending on the rest of the cast to prop up his dead corpse of a character. You can’t just get a pretty boy who looks good shirtless and expect him to carry the show on those merits alone. They couldn’t even seem to decide for sure whether Matt and Randi Jo were consistently dating throughout the season!
So, the fact that Sly and Jake will become the breakout characters is not surprising to me. Matt needed something else than his goody two shoes act to be an essential character to this show. As I said in another review, bad things happen to Matt inexplicably, but they’re always resolved without consequences by the end of the episode. No teenager is as squeaky clean as Matt. None. He’s more of a prototype for Wally from Leave it to Beaver than anything resembling an actual teen.
I have mixed feelings about Jenny. On one hand, she brings the voice of reason element to the show (except when it’s otherwise convenient to the plot, of course), which is much needed when the other characters are acting like complete jackasses. On the other hand, she has no personality beyond being a strong, assertive woman, and that’s a problem, especially when she’s playing to the whim of the men in her life, as in “This Time.”
Jenny needed to be fleshed out more. I’m not sure I can even name one thing she likes to do beyond playing in a band. Give her some hobbies, interests, something. Give me a reason to like her beyond a pretty face. It’s ironic that, in a show revolving around the Garrisons, the two Garrison teens are the least developed of the band. It’s like Engel and company put all their effort into the other characters rather than focusing on the main ones.
Tiffani is…weird. I don’t know what to think of her. The writers are obviously playing up the dumb blonde stereotype, which annoys the hell out of me because I could have gotten that in numerous other television shows and movies at the time before it became such a cliche it was mostly retired from real Hollywood productions. Unlike Jenny, Tiffani has a gimmick: being a surfer, but this little character contrivance might as well not even exist as we never actually see Tiffani surfing and the hobby barely factors into any episodes, the major exception, of course, being “Romancing the Tube.”
There’s nothing in particular for me to hate about Tiffani. She’s just kind of there, existing in some sort of stupid bubble that won’t go away. Occasionally, it seems as if the writers want to make her the voice of reason when Jenny’s unavailable to fill the role, but she’s really bad at it. Even the major event of the season for her, the return of her estranged mother, is left almost completely unexplored, and I doubt we’ll ever even hear about it again.
My favorite character from this season is Tony by far. And I’m beginning to realize it may be because he’s one of the only actual cast members with an actual personality. He calls Sly by his full first name, “Sylvester,” just to get on his nerves. He stands up to the racist father of a white girl he wants to date. He fights his father to continue being a part of the band. This season, some of the times Tony is on screen are the most interesting parts of the episode, by far.
I do wonder what the series would have been like if they’d started out with Tony as the central character. Considering what we now know happened after this season with the gradual lessening of the role of the Garrisons on the show, could it have worked to have Tony as the main character? An inaccurate plot summary on IMDB for “The First Gig” implied that Tony moved to California from the Midwest and started a band. That actually sounds like an intriguing plot line, and one that I wish they had explored.
I don’t like Sly like most viewers of this show seem to. Unless his character changes dramatically in the coming seasons, he just seems like the Screech of the group: not really needed for the overall plot of the show, but kept around for “comedic” effect. He’s an idiot, not of Screech proportions, but still an idiot, and I’m not quite sure why the rest of the band keep him around when he’s doing stupid things like nearly ruining Matt and Randi Jo’s relationship or spying on Jenny to be her dream man.
The element of his personality that makes him useful is the Zack Morris-esque schemer within, but I feel that could just as well have gone to Tony had they gone a different direction. Really, I feel like Sly has no redeeming traits. He says all the wrong things, does all the wrong things, and generally acts like an ass at all times. I feel like most people remember him because he looks good without a shirt. Hell, even Jimmy Fallon recognized this during the reunion when he had Michael Cade take his shirt off on stage!
And then there’s the extended Garrison family. What can you say about them? Richard’s the stern father. Melody’s the stern but loving mother. Together they became the Garrison bunch. We barely know that Richard is a college professor. I know they said on screen what Melody does, but I can’t remember it for the life of me, and it really doesn’t matter because both Richard and Melody are only around to act as plot devices, moving the story along lest it stall.
Despite being in the opening credits, Richard only appears in eight episodes this season; Melody only appears in seven. Hell, after the first episode, we don’t see Melody again for several episodes. The reason, I’m convinced, is that every one of their appearances are shoehorned in just to have them on the show. Would the show really have been worse off if Richard hadn’t been around to tell Tony that he wouldn’t mind a black guy dating his daughter, or Melody to be the middle-woman between Tiffani and her mom?
Despite the fact that this is the end of Richard and Melody as characters in the opening credits, we’ll have another opportunity to say goodbye to them next season. It is time, though, to say farewell to the most useless character I’ve ever encountered in the Engle-verse. More useless than Max, Milo, Tina, and Mike put together. So, last, and certainly least…
Dennis. Why is Dennis even on this show? I’ll tell you why: for cuteness factor. Nineties sitcoms had a bad habit of adding young child characters just for the “AWW” factor. Dennis is scheming something and outsmarted the other characters? Isn’t that adorable? Dennis wants to look at Tiffani’s breasts? That’s so cute! Dennis comes in and spouts random lines that contribute nothing to the episode? Give him a fucking Daytime Emmy folks!
Really, Dennis is a ten year-old boy, and that’s all you need to know about him to understand his character. He has no character development throughout the season and even in the episode with his name in the title, he feels superfluous. The only bit of characterization we get this season, that he apparently doesn’t get along with Matt, comes the fuck out of nowhere and isn’t reflected at all the rest of the season. Dennis is a walking, talking contrivance, and he will never be seen again after this season. I don’t know if anyone will mention his existence at all next season, but, if the writers choose to pull a Chuck Cunningham on him and forget he ever existed, this is one instance where I won’t blame the writers for bad writing. He’s not even competently acted, so he just comes off as a horrible child character in the vein of Oliver from The Brady Bunch.
Ryan O’Neill was in a few other things throughout the nineties, most notably a couple guest spots on Northern Exposure as well as some long forgotten family films. He’s sporadically appeared in some things throughout the 2000’s, including a 2011 film called New Jerusalem (starring indie rock darling Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), but he’s never had much of an acting career. He also appeared in the music video for “Childhood,” Michael Jackson’s long-forgotten attempt to create a them for Free Willy 2 that would be as well-remembered as the one he performed for the original Free Willy. It’s pretty bad. As for what he’s doing today, your guess is as good as mine. He’s kind of dropped off the face of the planet, probably living a relatively normal life, with the caveat that he has an interesting bit of trivia about himself to talk about on social occasions.
For all its faults, I’m glad this show exists. It’s proof that the Engel cast of writers can develop something half decent when they put their minds to it. Unlike most of what they would later develop, this seems like it has potential, and it’s nice to know it stuck around a while. Whether it maintains quality, improves, or goes the way of The New Class and Hang Time is still to be seen. But, for now, I am glad to have watched the first season of this show, even if it meant seeing Dennis’s insufferable face all season.
If you’re familiar with my Saved by the Bell reviews, you’ll know that, in each recap, I pick the best and worst episodes for that season. Since all five seasons of this show are relatively short, I’m picking three I like and three I hate every recap. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments below!
Three Episodes I Loved:
Episode 3: “Beat of His Own Dream”: As I said in the recap, Tony’s episodes tend to be some of the best of the season. This one is no exception, as Tony stands up to his father to stay in the band. Tony’s father acts like an ass, but it’s kind of needed for the episode to progress. My only criticism is that the plot is too easily resolved, and Dennis’s creepy subplot of wanting to fuck Tiffani did not help the episode.
Episode 7: “Guess Who’s Coming to Brunch”: Hands down, the best episode of the season, and another Tony-centric episode, “Guess Who’s Coming to Brunch just proves that the Engel-verse can, indeed, do a half decent very special episode when they have to. IIt doesn’t have a happy ending and really feels like something that could happen to someone in real life, unlike, say, “Jessie’s Song” from Saved by the Bell or The New Class’s anti-smoking or anti-herbal supplements episodes.
Episode 11: “This Time”: I struggled with whether to put this one on the list but, what it comes down to, is that it’s one of the few opportunities for Jenny to truly shine as a three-dimensional character. Her fight with Matt seems genuine. I only wish they’d explored more what was obviously a fear of being alone as that’s the only reason someone would put up with the bull shit of this episode.
Three Episodes I Hated:
Episode 4: “Double Date”: Proof positive that Sly should be fired as the band’s manager, he convinces Tony to do something that should have gotten him fired and books the band without checking the rest of the band’s availability. If I was the audience at either Sharkey’s or the wedding, I would have been severely pissed off and wanted my money back as they really shouldn’t have satisfied either audience, except in contrivance land.
Episode 8: “It’s a Guy Thing”: An entire episode about Jenny and Tiffani teaching Sly and Tony how to treat girls. How utterly boring. Frankly, if I tried something like this on friends in real life, even if they really were sexist pigs, I probably wouldn’t have a friend anymore. What kind of teenagers really act like this? And the subplot about the Garrison men fixing things was just pointless.
Episode 10: “Romancing the Tube”: I hope I conveyed in my review for this episode how grating on my nerves it is. It reads like something my grandmother, who never surfed in her life, would have written about surfing. And the idea that Sly and Tiffani should have some sort of commitment ceremony after the short time they were dating is just idiotic (they’re supposed to be in high school for fuck’s sake!), but not as idiotic as the ceremony itself. And the subplot with Melody hiring Matt, Jenny, and Tony to paint the bedrooms is just never resolved and might as well not have been in the episode.