At the beginning of the annual congressional shootout over funding for public broadcasting, PBS inevitably launches a barrage of press releases about its storied cultural and intellectual contributions to U.S. culture. One achievement that never gets mentioned: the invention of reality television. Long before Jon and Kate or the “Real Housewives,” PBS gave us the bickering, brawling Loud family.
The Louds, who lived in an upscale Southern California suburb, allowed a PBS camera crew to follow them constantly for seven months in 1971 and 1972. When the results aired the next year in the 12-hour series “An American Family,” the country was transfixed.
What began as a sunny idyll of backyard barbecues and teenage puppy loves plummeted into a living hell of domestic dysfunction that pitted children against parents and spouses against one another. At a time when homosexuality mostly lurked in the deepest part of the American closet, viewers were shocked by the flamboyantly gay lifestyle of teenage son Lance (and, unfortunately, had difficulty separating his empty-headed narcissism from his sexual identity). And they were stunned when wife Patricia, without warning, dumped her husband Bill right there on camera, kicking him out of the house and flouncing off to a divorce lawyer.
The results were great for PBS, which drew an average audience of 10 million viewers for each episode of “An American Family,” quadruple that of the stuffy British costume dramas that until then had been the network’s most popular shows. The outcome for the Louds was less rosy — the family was not only shattered but also publicly vilified.
“We’ve lost dignity, and we’ve been humiliated as a result of it,” a broken Patricia said. “Our honor is at question.”
The biggest loser of all was television. “An American Family” had created a new genre, and it turned out to be a short step from the Louds to “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance” and “Temptation Island.”
Almost four decades later, television is finally confronting its history. HBO’s drama “Cinema Verite” is a searing and irresistible look at the making of “An American Family” and an incisive dissection of the mendacity of what we so absurdly call reality TV. It is a study in manipulation and betrayal, exogenous and self-inflicted. And it is a mirror for television audiences to stare into while asking, why do we watch this stuff?
Villains of varying degrees abound in “Cinema Verite.” But the most sinister is Craig Gilbert, the producer of “An American Family.” Gilbert (played, appropriately enough, by James Gandolfini in his first significant TV role since “The Sopranos”) was a PBS staff producer who had just done a documentary on anthropologist Margaret Mead. He wanted to do a television version of Mead’s famous studies of Samoan families but direct it at the deconstruction of the sitcom version of American life.
The Louds, blinded by vanity (“We’re like the West Coast Kennedys,” brags Bill), proved perfect foils. They were Christmas-card perfect on the outside: a bluffly cheerful husband with a successful business career, an elegant Stanford-educated wife with a touch of middle-aged sultriness and kids busily riding horses, forming garage bands and engaging in various wholesome pursuits.
But, like any family (and perhaps more than some), the Louds had their domestic fault lines. The marriage still hadn’t totally recovered from Bill’s adulterous escapade of several years earlier. The homosexuality of a child was still largely unmapped territory for parents. And the same economic tensions that wracked many middle-class homes of the era, between parents who grew up during the Depression and children who thought money grew on trees, were present in the Loud household.
“Cinema Verite” shows Gilbert ruthlessly aggravating and exploiting every chink in the Louds’ domestic armor to create drama for his show, encouraging Lance to preen outrageously for the camera and playing on Pat’s fears about her husband’s fidelity. She could be a feminist icon, he argues — “a vision of a modern liberated woman. ... Women all across America are going to look to you for a road map of how to be and who to be. You are in a position to show women whose strength is eroding how to take back their lives.” Gandolfini’s performance as the hippishly oily Gilbert is matched by Diane Lane’s smoldering woman-on-the-brink portrayal as Pat.
More subtle than Gilbert’s manipulations, but equally devastating, are those of the medium itself.
The Louds quickly learn to play to the camera, and every petty spat goes nuclear, each one-up retort accompanied by a sidelong glace into the lens. Even a mildly grumpy exchange about the children’s spending goes toxic within seconds, with Pat demanding “How about raising people that have a shot at being happy?” and Bill snapping, “How about having parents make certain their kids know the difference between right and wrong?”
Later, after Pat finishes a scorching speech about why she wants a divorce, she proudly boasts off camera: “I think it was my best scene.”
Sadly, so does an entire generation of reality TV stars who’ve eagerly followed her in a quest for their 15 minutes of fame. Some of them should ask Pat about the 16th minute.
9-10:45 p.m. EDT Saturday