Back in 1973, the top shows on television included “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Kojak,” “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” “M*A*S*H” and “Hawaii Five-O” — the original version starring Jack Lord’s magnificent wind-resistant hair.
It was a gentler time then. Fred Sanford spent quality time arguing with his son, Caine walked through the old West dispensing wisdom and kung fu kicks, and Barnaby Jones didn’t have to worry about being forced into early retirement.
But there was something new and strange on the air, too, a documentary series on PBS called “An American Family” that — get this! — consisted of footage of real people being followed around by cameras to see what crazy things would happen.
This was the first reality TV family, according to “Cinema Verite,” a movie about the famous small-screen experiment. It debuts at 9 p.m. EDT Saturday on HBO.
“Cinema Verite” is like a history lesson in the genre that’s taken over so much of cable and broadcast network programming. It’s also the sort of intelligent drama that has to compete with the cheaper, flashier shows that “An American Family” eventually spawned.
There are brief clips of the real Bill and Pat Loud, the handsome, upscale California couple who became instant celebrities as their marriage imploded on camera. They appeared with their kids on the cover of Newsweek and were guests on “The Dick Cavett Show,” the retro version of “Charlie Rose.” And how appropriate that a family named Loud would pioneer a genre now known for its outrageous behavior.
In the HBO retelling, Tim Robbins plays the conventional Bill, who’s too square and unemotional to be of much interest to the cameras. In an ironically touching scene, Bill tries to convince the unimpressed film crew to come with him to work because some really interesting things might happen at the office.
Diane Lane is the frustrated Pat, a real housewife who has devoted herself to her husband and nearly grown kids only to realize that she doesn’t know what to do next. A beauty whose seething resentment is tailor-made for audiences of emotional voyeurs, Pat is too smart to want to share everything onscreen and yet too angry at times to avoid it.
A bearded James Gandolfini is Craig Gilbert, the filmmaker who seems to have a heart but also carries a ferocious ambition to make his documentary interesting. He talks the Louds into becoming the Situation and Snooki of their day, an idea that plays to their intellect and ego.
“Why would anyone want to participate in such a thing?” Pat asks at the beginning of the movie when the topic of a documentary is broached. But when Gilbert compares the series to a Margaret Mead anthropological study, she’s hooked. Bill, in turn, the distant spouse with hidden self-doubts, is pulled in by the lure of status. Why shouldn’t they be on TV instead of another family in the community? Basically, he just wants a chance to be considered someone worth watching — the same motivation that drives today’s aspiring reality stars.
As the filming process begins, there are gripes from the TV station funding the documentary that there’s not enough drama. But Gilbert doesn’t need much encouraging to push the spotlight closer to personal topics, often against the wishes of the crew.
Soon, Gilbert is crossing the “threshold of privacy,” his early words, in the search for juicier footage of the cracks in the Loud marriage. He also finds gold in Bill and Pat’s gay son, Lance, a charismatic charmer who isn’t exactly what 1970s mainstream society expected of its TV icons. At the time the documentary aired, Pat drew complaints for being supportive of Lance.
The Louds may have thought they were signing up for the ultimate flattering home movie, but what they ended up with was a temporary position as America’s most famous dysfunctional family, a minor footnote in TV history, and now, a fascinating HBO movie about their experience.
Last weekend, the first Reality Rocks Expo, a reality TV convention, was held on the West Coast. The attendance was underwhelming, and as the Los Angeles Times, a co-sponsor of the event, noted on one of the days, “the biggest line of the day wasn’t for meet-and-greets with the likes of Ray J (” For the Love of Ray J “) or Omarosa (” The Apprentice, ” ” The Surreal Life “), rather it was for a casting call for the Hub’s new music competition series ” Majors and Minors. “
Thirty-eight years after the series about the Louds, not many people remember them, but everyone wants to be on reality TV. And the din of people scrambling for those 15 minutes of fame just keeps getting louder.