By EW Staff
Updated July 18, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: American Dreams: Chris Haston

(NBC, Sundays, 8 p.m., restarts Aug. 3)
This saga of a ’60s family started out gimmicky: Pillowy-soft star Brittany Snow finds happiness as an ”American Bandstand” dancer and squeals as guest stars like Usher and Michelle Branch impersonate Marvin Gaye and Lesley Gore. But it ended up bracingly honest, with race as a flashpoint. ”Dreams” succeeded as it gradually moved away from the immediate family and increased the roles of the supporting cast, such as Henry (the shrewdly guarded Jonathan Adams), a black man who works at the appliance shop owned by Snow’s father (Tom Verica). The writers dramatized the dilemmas faced by a middle-aged African American caught between the polarizing civil rights philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. ”Dreams” also turned Gail O’Grady from an ”NYPD Blue” bimbo into a believable mom, and featured the year’s heppest boyfriend, bespectacled Luke (Jamie Elman), who sneered at the British Invasion and turned Snow’s Meg on to acoustic Bob Dylan. He was myopic in more ways than one (he’ll learn next season, one hopes, how much Dylan dug the Beatles), but he helped make this underviewed series a keeper.

Next up are the TV equivalents of ”beach reads,” which I’d define as dramas that set up and (for the most part) resolve their conflicts in 60 tidy minutes — self-contained tales that satisfy like the short chapters in a lightweight best-seller, or a good short story. Among this off-season’s standouts:

(CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
Jerry Bruckheimer, who produces ”Amazing Race,” ”Trace,” and its lead-in, ”CSI,” makes brainier TV than he does feature films (his upcoming ”Cold Case,” leading out of ”60 Minutes” on CBS this fall, will, I predict, continue his streak). ”Trace”’s lead, Anthony LaPaglia, is a terrific actor who deftly holds himself back to convey jaded experience as Agent Jack Malone, and the show’s signature opening scene — the moment when the victim just fades from the screen, in a ghostlike mirage shot — perfectly matches his eerie, alluring calm. As for CBS’ other crime-scene success ”CSI: Miami” — sorry, it may be a ratings success, but the climate change from dry, hot Las Vegas to humid, hot Miami aside, it simply hasn’t managed to distinguish itself in tone the way…well, the way the next shows do…

Whether it’s ”SVU” (Fridays, 10 p.m.), ”CI” (Sundays, 9 p.m.), or the Sam Waterston-starring Crispy Original (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.), exec producer Dick Wolf says NBC’s ”L&O” is all about the story. But, some 400 episodes later, it’s also about the comforts of structure (discovery, investigation, and prosecution of crime: bang, bing, boom), the bit parts (hey, finally a good use for Sandra Bernhard’s sour pucker as a guest-starring defense lawyer on ”SVU”). And sorry, Dick — about the stars: Waterston’s voice and throat wattle have grown more angry-quivery year by year, and I can’t wait until ”CI”’s Kathryn Erbe finally has it up to here with Vincent D’Onofrio’s hambone camera hogging. Be sure to watch the actress in reruns as she gets steadily more fed up with her minimal dialogue, ’cause I think she’s gonna blow a gasket come fall — and then the Big Guy’s goin’ DOWN!