It’s nightmare time for “American Dreams.”

NBC last week cut back its season order of the family drama from 19 episodes to 17. Moreover, the network shelved “Dreams” for the February sweeps. It won’t return until March.

“It’s very clear we’re on the bubble,” says Tom Verica, who plays patriarch Jack Pryor on “Dreams,” set in the turbulent “60’s against the backdrop of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

“It’s really demoralizing. The gypsy life we lead as actors, things happen quickly. Unfortunately, they’re usually out of our control. I’m very proud of this show. There’s got to be room for a quality family drama.”

The critics – and NBC czar Jeff Zucker – love “Dreams,” but it’s getting clobbered at 8 p.m. EST Sundays by CBS’s “Cold Case” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

In its third season, “Dreams” averages 7.5 million viewers, down from almost 10 million in 2002-03 and 8.8 million last season. It ranks 81st on Nielsen’s Hit Parade.

To offset “Dreams”‘ hefty price tag (estimated at more than $1.7 million per episode), executive producer Jonathan Prince has peppered the show with product placements from big-time sponsors.

In one case (Campbell’s Soup), he even created a storyline around it. Still, odds are slim that “Dreams” will make NBC’s fall cut.

Last week was brutal on the cast, Verica says, because the end of production was suddenly moved up more than two weeks, to Friday. NBC won’t decide until May whether the 17th episode was the season finale or series swan song.

That episode “was originally designed to be a cliffhanger,” says Verica. “It would be a tremendous disappointment if this is how the show ends.”

A 20-year veteran of TV, Verica is no stranger to disappointment. With a quality show, however, the prospect of cancellation still stings.

“I’ve gotten better at this,” he says. “My business head says, “Business is business.’ My skin has gotten a little thicker. On a personal level, this is a quality show and we have some pretty high-profile supporters.”

They include “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, whose teenage daughter, Allison, did a cameo as an East Catholic High student; and Gary Sinise of CBS’s “CSI: Miami,” whose two daughters appeared as dancers on “Bandstand.”

‘The Shield’

Glenn Close and Michael Chiklis hooking up on FX’s “The Shield”? He’d dig it.

Having Chiklis’s rogue Detective Vic Mackey get involved this season with his new captain, Glenn Close’s Monica Rawling, “sounds like an amazing idea,” he says.

“It would be very exciting. It would definitely lend itself to tremendous drama. It’s an obvious conflict of interest. It would create all kinds of havoc and put some serious wrenches in the works.”

“Shield” launches its fourth season March 15. Chiklis, who has shot five episodes with Close, says he has no idea what the writers have in store, “but I guarantee you, I’m going to ask.

“On “The Shield,’ anything is possible.”

Gail Shister:

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