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The Best of "California Dreams" DVD Review

The Best of California Dreams DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com The Best of California Dreams (1992-95)
Show & DVD Details

Creators/Producers: Ronald B. Solomon, Brett Dewey / Executive Producer: Peter Engel

Writers: Ronald B. Solomon, Brett Dewey, Tony Soltis, Noah Taft, Lyn Greene, Richard Levine / Directors: Patrick Maloney, Don Barnhart, Miguel Angel Higuera

Starring Cast: Kelly Packard (Tiffani Smith), Michael Cade (Sylvester "Sly" Winkle), William James Jones (Tony Wicks), Jay Anthony Franke (Jake Sommers), Brent Gore (Matt Garrison), Jennie Kwan (Samantha "Sam" Woo), Aaron Jackson (Mark Winkle), Diana Uribe (Lorena Costa), Heidi Noelle Lenhart (Jenny Garrison), Michael Cutt (Richard Garrison), Gail Ramsey (Melody Garrison), Ryan O'Neill (Dennis Garrison)

Recurring Characters: Brittney Powell (Randi Jo Manning), Johnny Williams (Sharkey)

Notable Guest Stars: Elise Neal ("Miss" Jackie), Richard T. Jones ("Big Bad" Bo), David George Brown (Mr. Abercrombie), Denise Dowse (Miss McBride), John Buchanan (Glenn Roberts), Eddie Pagliaro (Mookie), Scott Atkinson (Billy), Nikki Cox (Allison), James Gleason (Mr. Parrot), Lang Yun (Great Great Granny Woo), Jamie Kennedy (Sea Kelp), Majorie Monaghan (Coach Hardaway), Stacy Ferguson (Christy)

Running Time: 215 Minutes (10 episodes) / Rating: TV-G
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio); Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Original Airdates: September 12, 1992 - January 7, 1995
Suggested Retail Price: $9.98 / DVD Release Date: July 19, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Keepcase

Buy California Dreams from Amazon.com: The Best of DVD Seasons One & Two DVD

In the early days of television, the three big networks filled their Saturday morning schedules primarily with live-action programming. Over time, the kid-friendly weekend slots increasingly went to animation, as networks and producers figured out how to meet the medium's financial and labor demands. By the end of the 1960s, cartoons ruled Saturday morning TV.
Things remained that way in the 1970s and '80s, with animated series from Hanna-Barbera and other studios dominating the airwaves, broken up only by the occasional piece of live-action Krofft brothers fantasy.

Then in the fall of 1989, NBC premiered "Saved by the Bell", in between "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "ALF Tales." The inexpensive high school sitcom, a reworked version of the Disney Channel's short-lived "Good Morning, Miss Bliss", was a hit and paved the way for others to follow. The model was successful enough for NBC to switch to an almost all live-action lineup by the mid-1990s, introducing official spin-off "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" and an assortment of similar kid-friendly, teen-starring sitcoms unmistakably inspired by the Bayside High gang. "Saved" executive producer Peter Engel was also behind nearly all of the copycat series, none of which strayed far from the cost-effective designs of his original high school-based comedy.

Engel's first SBTB knock-off was "California Dreams", which took to the air the same September 1992 that Zack Morris and friends began what would appear to be two alternative senior years. "Dreams" presented a mild variation, doing away with most of the academic storylines and focusing on the friendships outside the classroom. While Zack and company's band Zack Attack featured in a few episodes, the California Dreams played songs in almost every one. Pacific High did not seem terribly different from Bayside, only more relaxed and with fewer nerds and jocks. These teens know how to enjoy the southern California sun, with bathing suits, surfboards, rollerblades, romance, and music. In short, "Dreams" is a dumbed-down version of "Saved by the Bell", with the lead friends bound to each other in a garage band. Zack, Slater, Kelly, et al. had the Max; these kids have their own hangout, Sharkey's.

"California Dreams" uses three opening title sequences in three seasons, each employing a 1990s style. Life's a beach for the California Dreams, as these friends/high school students/band mates easily juggle luau and wedding gigs on the same night with skates on their feet.

Interestingly, "Dreams" began more like a traditional family sitcom, with two teen siblings (Brent Gore, Heidi Noelle Lenhart), a younger brother (Ryan O'Neill), and their two parents (Michael Cutt, Gail Ramsey) comprising the majority of the original regular cast. After the 13-episode first season, the parents and kid brother were dropped. The sister, Jenny, was let go of halfway into Season 2. Her top-billed brother would leave after that second season, eliminating the entire Garrison family from the picture, never to return. The show continued and, judging only from this selection and what else I remember, didn't change dramatically as a result of that. From the start, it was mostly about a group of teenaged friends.

Like "The New Class" and unlike "Saved by the Bell", "California Dreams" reworked its cast every year, with "Dreams" doing more gaining than losing. It took a while, but the show eventually hit and then passed the magical six-teen design that "Saved" always maintained. Although it didn't concern itself with even distribution of the sexes, "Dreams" did seem to pride itself on diversity, beginning with the token black kid Tony Wilks (William James Jones) and then expanding to include Chinese exchange student Sam Woo (Jennie Kwan) and feisty Latina Lorena Costa (Diana Uribe).

Flat-topped Tony was one of three cast members who stayed with the sitcom for its entirety. The others were sporty, prototypical blonde Tiffani Smith (Kelly Packard) and the band's opportunistic manager "Sly" Winkle (Michael Cade). Winkle (catchphrase: "ba-boom") is the closest thing the show has to a Screech and oddly so, since he looks and acts like Tom Cruise, back when Cruise was the world's biggest movie star and not a potential liability to a big budget tentpole release. Heck, one of the girls even has a picture of Cruise on her bedroom wall, so it's odd nobody makes the connection instead of being skeeved out by him.

Third season leads Jake (Jay Anthony Franke), Tiffani (Kelly Packard), Tony (William James Jones), and Sam (Jennie Kwan) secretly admire the piano talent of transfer student Mark Winkle. It might look like two young Tom Cruises, but in fact it is just one Sylvester "Sly" Winkle (Michael Cade), the California Dreams' loathsome classmate/manager, the sitcom's first choice for goofy double duty.

While most of them haven't faded into the obscurity of some of the "New Class" actors, no huge stars have emerged from any of the core "Dreams" casts. The most famous is Packard, who went on to two seasons of "Baywatch" and served as field correspondent to host Dean Cain on the 2000s "Ripley's Believe It or Not."
Another nearly household name involved here is jazz/standards singer-songwriter Steve Tyrell, who receives prominent (and unlikely) credit for the original music. A couple of recognizable celebrities make barely recognizable passing guest star appearances on this DVD as well: Stacie Ferguson (a.k.a. Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, in between careers) and Jamie Kennedy (who seems to be growing less famous by the day, but was just starting out in 1994).

The young leads of "California Dreams" seem to have been cast for their looks. They display no apparent vocal, musical, or acting talent. If they are in fact singing their own songs, it neither looks nor sounds like it. Not that Zack Attack was the real deal, but those kids at least had charisma and comic timing to fall back on.

"California Dreams" would stay in production for five seasons and 78 episodes, a run similar to that of "Saved by the Bell." But like every standard by which the two can be compared, this successor comes up short in impact, familiarity, syndicated afterlife, connected movies and spin-offs, and fan following. "Dreams" seems to have fared better than Engel's subsequent clones -- "Hang Time", "City Guys", etc. -- which have largely faded from the public consciousness without any DVDs to even jog memories. But it still lacks much of the iconicity and recognizability that multiple generations have given "Saved."

Seemingly the only property from NBC's 1993-2002 TNBC block outside the SBTB franchise to come to DVD, "California Dreams" made its format debut spring 2009 in a 6-disc Seasons One & Two collection from Shout! Factory. One assumes it didn't sell too well, because the fan-pleasing distributor has since released Season 3 and Season 4 sets as Shout! Factory Select exclusives, available only directly from their official online studio store.

As they've done on some other shows, Mill Creek Entertainment has licensed some "California Dreams" rights to handle low-priced alternatives to the multi-disc Shout! sets. The first of these was released last week with the straightforward title The Best of "California Dreams". This disc takes Mill Creek's standard approach, packing ten episodes on a disc with "TV Flash Backs" branding and the very reasonable list price of $9.98. For some reason, quite possibly because until this year, it's all that Shout! had released, the disc limits itself to the sitcom's first three seasons, pulling two episodes from Season 1 and four from each Season 2 and 3. Read on to learn more about the featured episodes.

"California Dreams" opens as a family sitcom, but soon abandons that design and, before long, that entire family. Matt Garrison (Brent Gore, right) expects a hallway fight with ill-reputed new kid Jake Sommers (Jay Anthony Franke), but instead gets some sensitive song lyrics.

1.01. The First Gig (21:45) (Originally aired September 12, 1992)
The Dreams get their first gig on the same night Matt and Jenny's dad plans to take their family to the Grand Canyon.

1.04. Double Date (21:45) (Originally aired September 26, 1992)
The Dreams land both a wedding and a Sharkey's luau on the same night, requiring them to play two places at once.

2.08. High Plains Dreamer (21:41) (Originally aired October 30, 1993)
Tony dreams everyone back in the Old West in a story paralleling his present love triangle with Jackie (Elise Neal) and "Big Bad" Bo (Richard T. Jones).

2.01. Jake's Song (21:23) (Originally aired September 11, 1993)
Jake Sommers (Jay Anthony Franke), the feared new bad boy at school demands some face time with Matt. Tiffani becomes Tony's manager at Sharkey's.

2.06. Surfboards and Cycles (21:39) (Originally aired October 16, 1993)
To get close to the opposite sex, the guys take home ec and the girls, auto shop. Tiffani and Jake begin and end a relationship, with their friends trying to reunite them.

As presented on this DVD, Tiffani (Kelly Packard) and Jake (Jay Anthony Franke) start, stop, restart, and end (pictured) their relationship in successive episodes that in fact aired at nearly opposite ends of Season 2. Perhaps a mime show wasn't the best place for Sly (Michael Cade) to take Allison (Nikki Cox), his blind cyberspace girlfriend on their first date.

2.18. Indecent Promposal (21:26) (Originally aired February 5, 1994)
When Jake doesn't want to go to prom, Tiffani goes with rich kid Glenn Roberts (John Buchanan) instead, leading to a season-closing mid-dance break-up recalling Zack and Kelly's.

3.01. The Unforgiven (21:21) (Originally aired September 10, 1994)
In need of equipment and a new singer,
the band turns to Sly's cousin Mark (Aaron Jackson) and tries to help him overcome his stage fright.

3.04. Blind Dates (21:18) (Originally aired October 1, 1994)
The gang tries using "Compuchat" to meet the opposite sex online, netting Sly a date with blind girl Allison (Nikki Cox) and connecting Tony with Sam.

3.15. Junior Achievement(s) (21:22) (Originally aired December 24, 1994)
In a rare display of education (and another plot recycled from "SBTB"), the gang tries to run their own businesses, with most of them trying to sell Sam's great-grandmother's miracle cure for the common cold.

3.17. Tiffani's Gold (21:21) (Originally aired January 7, 1995)
In an episode recalling Jessie Spano's bout with caffeine pills, Tiffani starts taking steroids to help her make the national volleyball team. The guys compete against each other to determine who's the most studly.

Tiffani's (Kelly Packard) vein-bulging, Sly-throwing locker room roid rage display ranks up there with Jesse Spano's "I'm so excited, I'm so excited, I'm so...scared" caffeine pill breakdown. Mill Creek Entertainment does the 1990s proud with this lightly animated DVD main menu screen.

VIDEO and AUDIO

"California Dreams" appears in its original 1.33:1 "full screen" aspect ratio. Between the modest production values and the low bit rate of a DVD jam-packed but slightly shy of capacity, the show is generally not very presentable. It is soft and blurry, with some compression woes. I think it remains close to what the show originally looked like on Saturday mornings 15 to 19 years ago. But DVD can make and has made many an older series look new.
There's only so much that can be done on a '90s sitcom shot on video, but Mill Creek is probably right in thinking the typical customer would prefer more episodes to slightly better-looking ones.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is less cause for concern. The mix is an utterly standard '90s TV presentation and the dialogue is always a little more thin than what you'd get from feature films. But it is clear, consistent, and reasonably vivacious, all of which makes it easier than usual to forgive the typically annoying omission of both subtitles and closed captions.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, DESIGN, and PACKAGING

No bonus features are offered here. That's not surprising because the DVD is already packed full with episodes. Those unsatisfied by this sampling will find a retrospective on the first Shout! Factory set (plus a "Video Jukebox" feature on every single disc they've released). The 2010 cast (+ Mr. Belding) reunion on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" (a consolation for the host's failed "SBTB" reunion mission) begs for inclusion on the final Shout! set, but until then, you can watch it in rough quality on YouTube.

The main menu animates a very '90s background and the title logo around the cover's not especially representative cast shot while the theme song plays. The other screen lists the disc's ten episodes while end credits score plays.

With each clocking in between 21 and 22 minutes, the episodes do seem to run awfully short here for early-to-mid '90s television. I would hope that they are not shortened, syndicated cuts, but if so, then Shout! must be relying on the same source, since their runtimes match these. Episodes are divided into five chapters, with the first going entirely to the theme song, allowing you to skip past it (but why ever would you want to?!).

Confirming that the curious "Punky Brewster" DVD I recently reviewed was not indicative of Mill Creek at large, this disc is packaged in a perfectly standard black keepcase, with disc art a cool overhead shot of six cast members in a hot tub.

Tony's (William James Jones) supposed love of westerns sends him and his friends back into the wild, wild West with Matt as minstrel in "High Plains Dreamer." Inside Sharkey's, Antoine "Tony" Wicks (William James Jones) and Samantha "Sam" Woo (Jennie Kwan) wait impatiently for their Internet dates to arrive. Little do they know they're standing next to them.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"California Dreams" is a pretty cheesy teen sitcom that is largely redeemed by nostalgia for '90s Saturday mornings. This is definitely one of those shows that many will want to revisit but not enough to want to plop down $30 for a season or two. Mill Creek's disc might not boast the best quality or any bells or whistles, but it is more than satisfactory as a single serving sampling from what are probably this show's best years. On those grounds alone, it can be easily recommended for the casual fans who have seen and not forgotten this TNBC relic.

Buy The Best of "California Dreams" from Amazon.com / Buy Seasons 1 & 2

Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed July 26, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1992-95 Peter Engel Productions, NBC Productions and 2011 Mill Creek Entertainment.
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