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An American Family: 40 years later, and there’s still nothing quite like this landmark doc

Considering all that Americans had to be angry about in 1973 – the OPEC oil embargo, the hemorrhaging Watergate fiasco, ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia – you have to wonder why so many of them were outraged at the Loud family.

Forty years ago, PBS made both its reputation and an army of enemies following the broadcast of a 12-part cinéma-vérité-styled documentary series called An American Family. Culled from more than 300 hours of footage shot over the course of a year, the groundbreaking true-life domestic melodrama caused a sensation during the three months that it ran. Members of the Santa Barbara, Calif., family that it tracked, Bill and Patricia Loud and their five children, were the subjects of magazine covers and newspaper headlines, conversational topics in Doonesbury, serial guests on The Dick Cavett Show, and – most dramatically – unwitting icons of everything that was deemed to be unravelling in the post-sixties fabric of American life. By the time Newsweek got around to putting the Loud brood on its cover, the headline ran "The Broken Family."

What exactly was all the fuss about? First of all, America had never seen anything like it. For all the ground the fly-on-the-wall form of documentary filmmaking called cinéma vérité had already broken in the United States, France, Britain and Canada (where filmmaker Allan King's A Married Couple had anticipated An American Family's intimate chronicle of domestic discord by several years), in the U.S. it had remained largely safely out of the home. It was a style appropriate for movies about politics, public institutions and rock stars, but not couples staring down the cliff face of their own matrimony. For many, it was one door too far opened for the sake of public decency, and the blowback that struck the Louds, PBS, the filmmakers and perceived liberal postcountercultural moral permissiveness was devastating. Interviewed decades after the broadcast, An American Family's creator Craig Gilbert admitted still being shellshocked by the response the program generated: "I was flabbergasted, disturbed, upset, confused and have remained so to this day," he said in a 2011 interview marking the 40th anniversary of the program's making. "Obviously, it was a high point in my life and I'm proud of it. But I'm also very disturbed by it and puzzled by it and I haven't come to terms with it yet."

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By the time An American Family's legendary production was adapted into an HBO dramatic movie in 2011 – called Cinema Verite and starring the late James Gandolfini as Gilbert – it had become commonplace to cite the program as the original precursor of reality TV, a historical connection rejected vehemently not only by Gilbert, but also by just about everyone involved in An American Family. The recoiling is perfectly understandable. Not only does it simply add even more injury to the Louds to suggest they were somehow responsible for bringing Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives into American homes, it misses the point of Gilbert's true achievement entirely. Where reality TV as we know it renders so-called "real" people into fully scripted performing caricatures of themselves, An American Family pulled the televisual cultural stereotype of U.S. family life inside out by stripping it of all mythological insulation. If the sanctity of the American family had been largely preserved and promoted by televisual depictions of stereotypically impregnable family harmony, in Gilbert's creation disharmony ruled: Bill was obviously serially messing around on Pat, Pat admitted to sexual neglect and eventually filed for divorce, and one of their kids – the unforgettably flamboyant Lance – was poised to become one of the first fully out mainstream gay icons in pop-cultural history. Clearly, the Cleavers had moved off the block.

In its rush to short-circuit this vision of the American family as "normal," much of America rejected the Louds themselves. They were called freakish, overly permissive, sick, narcissistic. The program was accused of being opportunistic, voyeuristic, manipulated and dishonest. Lance's gayness was even seen as the inevitable result of bad parenting. After a year or so of trying to combat the image with a collective display of public familial solidarity – ergo, the multiple appearances on the Cavett show – the Louds (Lance excepted) largely withdrew from public life altogether, and Gilbert left TV for good.

Looked back upon from this distance, the response to the program is every bit as compelling, dramatic and revealing as the program itself. I remember watching the whole thing as a rapt 15-year-old, glued by its unvarnished observations of a family in full, messy, unkempt glory. If I'd ever seen anything like it, it sure wasn't on TV. Maybe in some homes I knew, but not on the TVs inside them. Indeed, far from being the precursor to what we now so promiscuously call reality TV, An American Family was vilified precisely because it brought too much reality to TV: It admitted to infidelity, divorce, sexual frustration, homosexuality, intergenerational drift, the whole sloppy gamut of family life in America in the early 1970s. In an irony almost too rich to be real, so-called reality TV wouldn't flourish until it had figured out just how to keep reality from spoiling the show. Truth be told, An American Family let more reality into American homes than anything on TV before or since.

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Geoff More


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