In 1973, the entire country was captivated by PBS’s An American Family, the revolutionary first reality show. In twelve one-hour installments, it followed the Loud family— parents Pat and Bill and their five teenaged children—through the parents’ separation and the coming out of their gay son, Lance. There was no surprise; the outcome was divulged at the beginning.
Selections of the program can be seen at http://www.thirteen.org/american-family/#.UP3geWdyF8F/ and it is still fascinating. It is fascinating for its view of the good life in the 1970s (they still dialed phones) as well as for the original depiction of a disintegrating family.
Bill is the successful president of a mining supply company, a job that financially provides well for his family but requires him to be away from home for long stretches as he visits customers all over the world. He is a handsome man with an engaging, casual personality. He is also a womanizer who no longer even tries (at least, not very hard) to hide his infidelities from his wife.
The men wear long hair and mutton-chop sideburns as we all did in the early 1970s. Pat is very attractive with her dark, long hair pulled back at the sides. Raising five children has given importance to her life, but now she is becoming marginalized as they become increasingly independent.
Everyone starts out looking very normal and even appealing until you gradually recognize their isolation from each other and the masks they hide behind. The effeminate Lance hides behind his flamboyance. Pat literally hides behind big sunglasses worn indoors and out. Bill constantly projects the image of a good-natured, successful businessman and approaches family problems with a practical, studied lack of emotion.
Minutes after he arrives home from a business trip, Pat tells him she contacted a lawyer and he should move out. She says, “You know we have a problem.” His famous reply is, “What’s your problem?” He takes the news calmly, even offhandedly, and only comments that her action is short-sighted. He asks if the children are all “shaped up” with the situation, and calls a local motel for a reservation, telling Pat to be sure to forward an important customer call he is expecting. He takes his still-unopened luggage to one of the family cars while repeating his concern about the business call. (“Take the Jag,” Pat tells him. “I never use it.”)
At the time of the broadcast, there was a lot of discussion about how real the series could actually be with the intrusion of the cameras. It was a valid point, considering the bulky film cameras and lighting required back then, but the series was long enough for the Louds to become accustom to the cameras and for viewers to pick out the real moments from the play-acting. On seeing the series themselves, the family felt deceived by how negatively they were portrayed and were shocked by the criticism. The Times described Lance Loud as “camping and queening about like a pathetic court jester, a Goya-esque emotional dwarf.” Comments like that would hurt anyone.
People expected them to go on to even more fame, but they were just ordinary like most of us. Lance started a band with his friends, but none of them had special musical talent, and it never attracted a following except for the curious. One of the children told how their fame opened many doors but how quickly they were ushered out of that same door as their fame evaporated.
The series, long forgotten by many, has periodically resurfaced. The first was when Lance died in 2001 at age 50, a meth addict with AIDS, and last year HBO got them grudgingly together for a fictionalized special on the series. They do not want any more publicity. Pat, now 84, has all-white hair, but in exactly the same long style that seems age-inappropriate. Bill, 90, is a wizened, tiny old man who looks every bit 90. Details are sketchy because they both refuse interviews, but over the years he had remarried and had two more children. Surprisingly, he and Pat are back living together again. It makes a nice ending to the family saga, and we wonder why we cause ourselves so much unnecessary angst.