One day in the 1970’s the Loud family decided to let cameras follow them around, and before you knew it we had Snooki and table-tossing Real Housewives. An American Family, the first successful reality television series, gripped the country and kept social commentators chattering in 1973, and for more than 20 years has been unavailable. Now substantial, and pretty amazing, excerpts are on the website of WNET, the New York station that produced the series.
The channel will run a marathon of all 12 episodes after the premiere of Cinema Verite, HBO’s new fiction film – with James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins – about the dynamics between the filmmakers and the Louds. But these excerpts alone are fascinating evidence of how much the genre has changed.
The Louds were a middle-class family in Santa Barbara – Pat, Bill and their five nearly-grown children – who jumped into an experiment that was hardly new in the documentary world, but was radical for television. For seven months in 1971, the filmmakers watched as the family imploded. Pat broke up the marriage on camera. Their teenaged son Lance did not, as legend has it, come out on camera, but his role as an openly gay man on television was groundbreaking and newsworthy at the time.
In the first episode, producer Craig Gilbert – Gandolfini in Cinema Verite – explains that he wasn’t looking for the typical American family, simply an American family. But he wasn’t searching for the kind of outsized, outrageous characters we see on Jersey Shore or the Housewives franchise either.
As Gilbert says in his on-camera intro, “There is no question that the presence of our camera crews and their equipment had an effect on the Louds, one which is impossible to evaluate. It is equally true that the Louds had an effect on us, the filmmakers.” It would be refreshing to have a reality-TV producer today admit how much the cameras alter things. And in An American Family, the occasional presence of a narrator, or of a disembodied voice asking questions, breaks the fourth wall that so many shows now refuse to acknowledge even exists.
But like so many reality-TV characters today, Pat Loud later complained that she was edited for dramatic effect, making it look as if the family had never had a happy moment. Looking back, you might wish for more editing. The pace of An American Family is so patient at times it feels like the live web feed of Big Brother.
The Louds may not have been typical. They had more money, more kids, in the end more daring than the average family. But the cameras expose a core of genuine reality here. In addition to the shock value, that realism may be why the series resonated so powerfully with the American public, and why in the end An American Family really does feel like cinema verite while what it has morphed into – Snooki playing herself – is closer to performance art, a hybrid we should probably call reality entertainment. .
You can see more of An American Family on the WNET website, but here are a few of the most dynamic, illuminating moments.
Here’s a look at Episode 1, with Gilbert explaining the series:
In Episode 2, Pat visits Lance, who has moved to New York and is living at the Chelsea Hotel.
And here is one of the most intimate, painful moments ever on television. Using the camera as her ally, Pat announces to Bill, “I have spoken to a lawyer. … and I’d like you to move out.” As the camera closes in on his face, it looks as if the last thing on earth he wants to do is react in public, so he hardly reacts at all.
The American Family marathon on WNET begins on April 23 at 11 P.M. The next day it will also be on public television’s still-obscure WORLD channel at noon.