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An American Family: Anniversary Edition


When it comes to reality TV, forget ‘Survivor.’

Rod Lott August 26th, 2011

Perhaps the ultimate reality television series, 1973’s “An American Family” spent seven months with Santa Barbara’s Loud clan in order to carve 12 hour-long episodes for PBS. The cinéma vérité series was a cultural phenomenon, and you can’t change a channel today without feeling some of its aftershocks.

anamericanfamily

Almost 40 years later, PBS has issued a two-hour version of the groundbreaking project in an “Anniversary Edition.” It may as well be subtitled “Historical Sociological Document,” because that’s what it is. As producer Craig Gilbert informs the viewer at the beginning: “They are not the American family, they are simply an American family.”

In other words, just like yours and mine, for good or ill.

That explains both “Family”’s draw and drawback. It is true voyeurism, but if you were gazing through the window of any given suburban household, most of what you would witness would be dreadfully dull. We see Bill and Pat Loud at the dinner table and kitchen with four of their five children, talking backyard maintenance. Pat at the grocery store. A son riding a horse, a daughter at tap class.

The most interesting child, Lance, isn’t a child at all. Now grown, he’s gay and lives on the other side of the country, in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. He takes Mom to a "transvestite variety show," which bothers her. She then has her tarot cards read.

Bill does little more than work work work, which has driven a wedge in his marriage. When Pat has decided on a divorce, she reveals to her brother and sister-in-law that they’ve had no real sex life: "It's a like a courtesy, 'thank you, ma'am' thing." Soon, she asks him to move out, to which he coldly responds, “I think it's a fair deal."

He doesn’t share such sentiments when it comes town to figure out alimony payments with his lawyer. With his own words — "The boys can make their own clothing," "Nothing for entertainment, and nothing for birthdays" — he comes across as an all-business dick.

The show is dated in more than look and sound. For example, Pat is described as "pretty like Tricia Nixon," and auto insurance is $35. Sadly, dysfunction has no expiration date.  

This “Anniversary Edition” tacks on a brief, “where are they now” segment at the end, with one surprise. It also contains several interviews — many one-on-ones, and a 1973 panel discussion — that are more interesting than the actual program, because they discuss the story behind the story and its impact at the time. —Rod Lott

 
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