Revisiting… Dream On

Revisiting… A new series of posts revisiting film and television shows worthy of attention

Revisiting… Dream On (1990)

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As HBO was setting out to prove that it was not just television, (“It’s Not TV – It’s HBO”) the station that went on to dramatically shift the landscape of American media culture over the succeeding quarter of a century, commissioned Dream On as its earliest original series.

John Landis – best known for directing movies like The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London – asked Universal if he could take advantage of their catalogue of old movies it didn’t really know what to do with. They agreed and, in an entrepreneurial mood, David Crane and Martha Kaufman were hired to produce a show that could utilise these clips – Dream On was the result.

The series follows the ups and downs in the life of book editor Martin Tupper, played by Brian Benben. His life is variously disrupted, supported, scuppered and generally beset by his ex-wife Judith (Wendie Malick who you may recognise from another American sitcom Just Shoot Me where she played the predatory sex-crazed former model Nina Van Horn), his teenage son Jeremy (Chris Demetral), his charismatic talk show host best friend Eddie played by Dorien Wilson and his acerbic secretary Toby (played with fine bulldog force by Denny Dillon).

The show now stands out for the way in which it both set and broke established norms of television sitcoms. On the one hand, the dating disasters of a recently divorced single man in New York was hardly ground-breaking topical comedy and Benben spends a lot of time mugging for the camera in order to allow the clips to be fed into the screen time, like a live-action collection of Family Guy cut aways.

On the other, HBO pushed the fact that it was allowed to do things that the networks couldn’t – Look: nudity! – which also meant they could address issues outwith the perimeter of ordinary television fare – open about sex, for example, and willing to do an entire episode centred around Martin taking an AIDs test; pretty close to the knuckle 25 years ago. Four years later, Crane and Kaufman were responsible for the behemoth that was Friends, not a story line I can imagine attaching to the casual liaisons of Joey Tribbiani.

Dream On is not laugh out loud funny, it has to be admitted. Benben is a likeable lead – although whiny – but this aspect is addressed by the writers too. The classic movie clips are used to punctuate the emotional beats of the scenes, which can get wearying for the viewers.

But there is charm: in the performances and in the chance to see the forgotten oeuvre of Ronald Reagan, and to realise how much B-movie schlock Lee Marvin made. The show has dated too – there are a lot of pastel colours and the shoulder pads are a wonder of quarter century old engineering.

But, it has a classic opening sequence, “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b7fzAdDxyE” which is actually the origin of the classic static opening for all later HBO shows and if, like me, you watched it as a child on late night Channel 4 in the UK, there is nostalgia for a time when kids were sat in front of the TV and told to be seen and not heard. A bit like the narrative of Martin himself, come to think about it.

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