04.19.11

TV's Forgotten Reality Show

HBO's Cinema Verite, starring Diane Lane, shows the Loud family's experience as the center of the 1973 documentary series An American Family. Richard Rushfield re-watched the original landmark program.

Before there was JWoww or Omarosa or Survivor, in the winter of 1973, America was introduced to the concept of reality television by a soft-spoken upper-middle-class family, who, for 12 weeks, the nation watched eating dinner, sunbathing by their pool, and, before our very eyes, slowly disintegrating.

Called An American Family, the PBS documentary series mesmerized the nation with a peek into the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. The show became the centerpiece of a three-month-long national conversation, with viewers first engrossed in and then horrified by the charming family who became a symbol for all that had gone wrong with the country.

Nearly 40 years later, the Louds are back, this time as docudrama, in Cinema Verite, a made-for-HBO-movie that restages the filming of An American Family. Starring Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, the clan's matriarch and patriarch, and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert—the series' producer whose insertion of himself into the family's story off the cameras would be the subject of controversy for years to come—the film purports to tell the real tale of manipulation behind the series.

Since its debut, An American Family has been the source of controversy, and has become a touchstone in television history. With the HBO movie premiering this Saturday, it seemed a good moment to go back and watch the original PBS series that gave birth to it all.

Depicted in restrained, cold documentary style, the mise en scene of An American Family exists at the furthest reaches of space from, say, VH1's Rock of Love Bus With Bret Michaels. However, within this innocent show, the seeds were clearly planted for the era of Gosselins and Snookis to come.

Viewed today, An American Family plays like a postcard from a lost world. There's sun-drenched, overexposed footage of a nuclear family loafing around their den; an industrialist dad with his pompadour and sideburns, fumbling hopelessly to relate to his long-haired sons; mom is a Mrs. Robinson-esque brooding bundle of resentment in blue-tinted glasses, Scotch-and-soda perpetually in one hand, cigarette holder in the other.

The series looks closer to a work of 1960s cinema neo-realism than anything like what we now know as "reality television." The story drips along at a snail's pace; lingering sequences spend 10 full minutes watching the Louds pack the family station wagon and debate where to put the cooler. Striving in every frame for scientific legitimacy, Gilbert opens the film standing on a hilltop addressing the audience. The Louds, he warns us, "are not the American family, they are simply an American family."

Disclaimers aside, Gilbert's agenda is almost immediately clear: to depict the downfall of the American family as a microcosm of the collapse of traditional American order. In the early episodes, Gilbert all but plays the "Star Spangled Banner" when Bill Loud walks into a room, depicting him in smug, aloof glory, sipping cocktails on the lawn of prosperous friends, failing to understand their children's lack of interest in the family business, and in particular failing to relate to the startlingly charismatic Lance Loud, credited as television's first openly gay character, who, in a halter top from the Chelsea Hotel, plays the role of Gilbert's natural ally among the squares.

It was with this perspective that Gilbert was to make his true impact on the medium. From that day forward, reality TV would be dedicated to documenting the downfall of the old order. Soon enough, its pretentions to seriousness and objectivity would be dropped (Gilbert himself would later admit his agenda in producing the film)—where An American Family stroked its chin over the dysfunction it depicted, its successors, from The Real World to Jersey Shore, would revel in it, embracing civilization's end.

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But there's a funny thing about watching An American Family from across the chasm of decades. For all the dishonesty of the filmmaker's agenda, for all the outrage the family would spawn, what stands out is not the momentary skirmish in the culture wars, but the Louds' affection for each other. Marred by infidelity and a breakdown in communication between the sexes and generation, the Loud family was anything but perfect and was unable to withstand the pressures the era place on them. But shining through, despite it all, is a household of charming, awkward people, stumbling to hold on to each other when everything on earth is pulling them apart. And that, in the end, is why 40 years later, it's still impossible to ignore the Louds.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost . His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.