I’m OK, You’re (Really Not) OK: Memories of “An American Family”

April 23, 2011, 8:14 pm

Tonight HBO rolls out “Cinema Vérité,”a movie, starring Tim Robbins and Diane Lane, about the making of the TV series “An American Family” (go here for a trailer.)  My students can’t imagine a world without reality TV, endless channels where you can test the authenticity of your own life and emotions against the appalling things that other people say and do.  However, they probably also can’t imagine being fifteen in the winter of 1973, as the Vietnam war was coming to its grisly end, and having the Loud family combust live, every Sunday night, on PBS.  This is how one archive describes the series:

In 1971 filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond spent seven months documenting the day-to-day lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, CA, including parents William C. “Bill” and Pat Loud and their children Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. The resulting 12-hour documentary, “An American Family,” debuted on PBS-TV in early 1973. The show captivated millions of viewers worldwide with its then-unconventional depiction of middle class American family life that encompassed the “real-life drama” of marital tensions and subsequent divorce, a son’s openly gay life, and the effects of the changing concepts of the American family structure. Breaking apart from the traditional American family model of harmony and ideality portrayed in fictional television sitcoms of the early 1970s like “The Brady Bunch,” the novelty and innovation of “An American Family” not only pioneered reality television, but also set the tone for the more complex family models exhibited in later shows such as “Roseanne” and “The Simpsons.”

There was really nothing like it, I swear.

Nowadays, few people would ask, “Why would they do such a thing?  Allow a film crew to follow them around for months?”  Back then, that was part of the fascination.  In the suburbs of Philadelphia the answer was arrived at quickly:  the Louds lived in Santa Barbara, and people in southern California do all kinds of crazy $hit.  Everyone knew that.  But part of what was amazing about it to a teenager was the intimate glimpse of adult lives spinning out of control in exactly the way you knew they were spinning out of control down the street, or upstairs, but that no one was ever allowed to talk about.  This was a moment in history where feminism was changing everything, but suburban women did not actually quite dig feminism.  The sexual revolution and its attendant changes showed up a different way.  Instead of doing consciousness raising, or succumbing to quiet despair, women had extra-marital sex with the tennis pro (male or female), drank a lot, and maybe left their marriages when their husband’s drinking and screwing around finally got to them.

In the 1970s, women sometimes just left without telling anyone.  I knew the parents of one friend were getting divorced, but one day, around the swimming pool I heard one mother whisper to another about the event that tipped the scales:  “I’ve never heard of anything like it.  She took off her shoes, walked down the beach with the lifeguard, and never came back.”  The image has stayed with me forever.  Similarly, a college friend described her mother’s departure from the family home:  “Mom said she was going out to mail a letter,” my friend said, after a few beers.  “When we located her a month later, she was living with my social studies teacher.”

On “An American Family” we got to watch things that were not unheard of, but were talked about in whispers if at all.  They were things like: a son coming out as gay to his parents, heading off to live at the Chelsea Hotel and hang with Andy Warhol (wow! dude!); Pat Loud talking to her friends and to the camera crew about finding evidence of her husband Bill’s affairs, since she was the book keeper for his business and paid credit card bills for trips he went on with, ahem,  “Mrs. Loud;” the kids getting stoned; and Pat telling Bill, in front of a national audience, that she knew about his affairs, she was filing for divorce, and she was kicking him out of the house right now.  

So needless to say, what surprised me about “An American Family” was not that these things happened, but that my parents let my sister and I watch them happen.  Here is an important factoid about the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which culture was in terrible flux, and parents could say they didn’t “approve” of The Rolling Stones and more or less enforce it:  if it was on public television, it was OK.  Seriously.  Anything on public television was inherently safe to watch, whatever it was, even in Republican houses (which, by the way, ours was.)

But there was nothing safe about the Louds:  nothing.  That was why it was so cool, and I hope that  “Cinema Vérité”captures that.  For any number of uptight suburban kids it was our weird little Stonewall, the moment when we realized that not conforming, shucking the school uniform, was an option.

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