We hear a lot about “the American dream” – especially when a pandemic might sideswipe it.
But what is that dream? PBS “American Portrait” reminds us how varied it can be.
It can be something huge. A young Alaskan dad links with a friend to start their own airline; a student struggles to get into medical school – a chance that was denied to her mother in Afghanistan.
Or it can be more basic: A young construction worker (shown here) and his girlfriend, dreamig of some day having a house and a family. Those three stories are at the core of the “Portrait” opener, at 9 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 5).
The project started with PBS asking people to tell their stories, mostly in video form. The response was surprising, producers say, both in quantity – people have had extra time at home – and in tone.
There’s an optimism, Craig D’Entrone, the showrunner, told the Television Critics Association in July. “You hear people say, ‘I believe I can overcome.’”
And there’s something else. In a generation of selfies, people are willing to bare themselves and their lives. “There’s a level of vulnerability,” said producer Michelle Stephenson.
That’s most clear in segments focusing on Bre and Tyler (the show uses first names) in Joliet, Ill.
“All they want out of life is to be able to realize their dream of a family and their white picket fence,” said Bill Margol, the PBS executive in charge of the project. “But Tyler’s history and their own personal demons are hard to overcome.”
Bre evokes deep empathy. She’s 22 and talks of a complicated childhood, with a heroin-addicted dad. She works as a substance counselor and is excited about the possibility of a second job, as a waitress. Still, her hopes are pinned to Ty – her longtime love – beating problems with alcohol, drugs and anger.
“American Portrait” had a special this summer and now is a four-week series. Each hour has its own theme, offering a lot of quick glimpses and a few stories in depth.
In the opener (with the “American dream” focus), we meet Bre and Tyler. We also meet Mahsa, a college student in Virginia. To get into medical school, she has to raise her scores; her mother – formerly an Afghan activist for women’s rights – drills her with flash cards.
Then there’s the Alaskan pilot. “After getting laid off when the pandemic hit, Gunnar decided to risk it all, even his life, to start his own airline,” Margol said.
Well, a friend risked the money. Gunnar hopes to be able to skip December and January, when the temperatures (30 or 40 below, he says) and winds increase the danger.
His story is the one most affected by the pandemic. “COVID has had an impact on our American dream, on what we want and what we desire out of life,” Stephenson said.
When the economy skidded, Gunnar lost his job piloting for a small airline. He was jobless, with a wife and two young kids – in Unalakeet, a town (along the Bering Sea) that has 688 people, a pizza place, a burger spot, a grocery store and a school that averages 15 kids per grade.
It’s an unlikely spot for a start-up business. But there are even smaller towns that need air deliveries … and state police who need transportation … and maybe occasional sight-seers or people who need to get to Nome – 100-plus miles away by air, MUCH further by land.
By the end of this hour, we’ll find dreams succeeding and failing. It’s an emotional journey; that’s often true of the American dream.