American Family: Anniversary Edition, An (DVD Review)5 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark
By far the biggest wavemaker PBS had ever had up to that time (if not still), 1973’s An American Family premiered the Thursday before the mid-January weekend I moved to a new city to begin the most enjoyable decade of my life. This means I was about the only one (at least of those who by habit devoured pop-culture benchmarks) who missed every single showing — a dropped ball further explained by the fact that all-consuming Watergate (at least in my circle) was just heating up. Thus, it is very strange, nearly 40 years later, seeing at least a chunk of it for the first time.
Of course, this isn’t the real deal but a distillation of a dozen one-hour episodes into a two-hour remembrance. And for a while, I kept saying to myself, “This must be a lot more powerful when you see the it unfiltered” (which is probably still true). But somewhere along the way — maybe about 40% in — I realized that the experiences of the famously profiled Loud family had bitten me in the behind, even getting to it this late. How big was this program at the time? Well, outside of Watergate and probably ’73’s winding down of the Vietnam War, this must have been the op-ed event of the year. Two separate spinoff documentaries emerged with the passage of time, and the undertaking loomed large enough and long enough that even six years later, Albert Brooks was able to spoof the basic situation in his debut feature, Real Life. And just this year, HBO was able to mount a TV movie (Cinema Verite) out of the experience with Tim Robbins and Diane Lane playing parents-of-five Bill and Pat Loud — the affluent San Diego couple who allowed a film crew to follow them around from late May through New Year’s Eve, 1971, punctuated by a Loud divorce in the middle.
In one obvious way, Family was the granddaddy of today’s so-called “Reality TV.” But it wasn’t cast, scripted and generally canned the way those shows are — being much closer to Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries or the great Maysles Brothers/Charlotte Zwerin Salesman. Understandably, there’ll be some who shrug off this release in hopes of someday seeing the full-octane totality (never released officially for the home market), but the bonus extras here are as compelling as this series overview itself. The filmmakers were in their 20s when they shot the 300 hours of raw material, and one gets the feeling that they (and especially creator/producer Craig Gilbert) never got over it. The way the crew members tell it, everyone got along famously during shooting, and Pat even signed off on each episode without too many cold toes. But then came the reviews of the completed product, which attacked the Louds for their indolent-appearing lifestyle (a work-obsessed if philandering father perhaps excepted) — and, in particular, some of the slovenly attitudes displayed a couple near-grown sons who didn’t give much of an impression that they cared about doing a day’s labors unless they involved performing. Once the press jackals started in, the well filled up with poison pretty quickly.
The focal point (and perhaps the series’ severest critic) was eldest kid Lance — who became the first openly gay person ever seen on national TV (he eventually died at 50 of an HIV/hepatitis C combo after a career as a rock performer and later journalist). Of course, no g-word or any equivalents show up here — and it’s possible that if you were sitting out in Mayberry, you might have thought Lance was simply an excitable boy who acted flamboyantly, made fashion statements and ran off to live in New York’s Chelsea Hotel while hanging around with the Warhol crowd. As soundperson Susan Raymond says in a great interview, even the gay community probably didn’t regard Lance as the ideal movement symbol; they probably would have preferred Rock Hudson.
The most amazing aspect about the series has to do with where American TV was at the time. “The Brady Bunch” and “The Waltons” were among the rulers of the airwaves, and it hadn’t been that many years since “Ozzie & Harriet” and “The Donna Reed Shows” had completed their runs. Actuaries for life insurance companies must have been perpetually mystified because so many big-name stars (think Andy Griffith and Doris Day) built their sitcoms around still young but widowed protagonists with children because the phony networks wouldn’t allow anyone to be divorced. The country was changing — and had, in fact, already changed, at least in California. And California has almost always been five years ahead of the rest of the country (as one who grew up in Ohio will forever concede).