AMERICAN DREAMER" wears its ancestry, as well as its thematic statements, on its sleeve.
This new NBC show, which gets a send-off tonight at 9:30 on Channel 2 (WMAR) before moving into its regular Saturday night at 10:30 slot this weekend, is from producer Gary David Goldberg.
Subtlety was never the strength of Goldberg's one big hit,
"Family Ties," Michael J. Fox was. Goldberg's characters tend to strut around like ideas in an article out of "Psychology Today" until the actors are given time to flesh them out, and even then the episodes of his shows let you know what they are about by virtually running a banner headline in the opening dialogue.
"American Dreamer" is about . . . groan . . . the midlife crisis of the American male. Robert Urich stars as Tom Nash, a one-time, globe-trotting, big-time network correspondent whose wife was killed in Lebanon. Now, at the age of 40, he has moved to a small town in Wisconsin where he will raise his two kids and write a column for a Chicago newspaper.
In tonight's first episode, he hires his assistant and co-star, a frustrated local divorced housewife, intelligent but flaky, played by Carol Kane. We also meet his editor, Joe Baines, who, for some reason in this age of computers, has to make the drive from Chicago every week.
Taking a cue from a successful episode of "Family Ties" in which Alex explored the meaning of the death of a friend in monologues to the camera, "American Dreamer" will use such techniques as Tom tries to figure out what his life is about, sometimes going back in time as he remembers various incidents.
Tonight, he decides to visit the girl he stood up on the night of senior prom because he was playing basketball. She's a successful lawyer in St. Louis and doesn't even remember him.
In Saturday's episode, Tom organizes a male sensitivity group with predictably disastrous results, driving home the point that men don't open up and talk to each other like women do.
Nothing wrong with the messages included in "American Dreamer" -- Goldberg is clearly a sensitive, intelligent person -- it's just that viewers are more likely to appreciate such themes when engaged in their discovery as they arise from the characters and plot. It's a bit off-putting having them tattooed on the inside of your skull.
Goldberg also has a problem similar to one he faced with "Family Ties" -- the co-stars overwhelm his central character. Kane makes a clean steal of every scene she is in, making the always stiff Urich positively wooden by contrast. And Jeffrey Tambor as Baines demonstrates an excellent comedic touch, making Urich seem to fumble for his timing.
Indeed, Kane and Tambor provide enough laughs to make you overlook many of the show's other flaws. In time, "American Dreamer" might live up to its lofty intentions, but right now it can't quite deliver.
** A network correspondent leaves his globe-trotting ways behind, taking his two kids to a small Wisconsin town to write a newspaper column contemplating the meaning of it all, aided by the insights of a flaky local woman he hires as an assistant.
CAST: Robert Urich and Carol Kane
TIME: Tonight at 9:30, then Saturdays at 10:30
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)