The latest trend in television programming, reality shows, have hit the airwaves en mass. This month alone, the major commercial broadcast and cable networks will launch six new reality programs. To insure viewers will stay tuned in, series producers are putting their own special spin on what is by now a familiar (and tired) genre.
Three years ago, prime time reality series like Survivor and Big Brother were still enough of a novelty that audiences didn’t care if the participants were actual, real live people (in other words, “non-celebrities”). While we can all remember the name of the winner on Season 1 of Survivor (Richard Hatch), can anyone recall the names of the subsequent survivors or the winners of Big Brother, The Mole, or The Amazing Race?
Reality series producers believe they have the perfect solution for making the audience care more about the contestants. In an obvious attempt to duplicate the success of MTV’s The Osbournes, producers have enlisted B-celebrities (as opposed to “wanna-B celebrities”) of yesteryear, including former child/teen actors such as Emmanuel Lewis, Corey Feldman, Barry Williams, and Dustin Diamond, cast members of Living Single (Kim Coles and Kim Fields), ex-recording stars M.C. Hammer, Coolio, Tiffany, Milli Vanilli’s Fabrice Morvan, and, of course, Kato Kalin. These are to be the reality TV stars of tomorrow. Indeed, in a desperate attempt to jump start their 15 minutes of fame, these people have agreed to once again reenter the limelight, even if it’s only to play a game of whodunit (Celebrity Mole: Hawaii), undergo military training (Fox’s Celebrity Bootcamp), or co-habitate with each other (WB’s The Surrreal Life).
The series that perhaps best exemplifies how low the TV networks will stoop to give viewers what they want is E!’s mind-numbing The Anna Nicole Show starring America’s favorite ex-Guess Jeans model-slash-gold-digger. For 13 episodes, this accident waiting to happen appears on camera in a perpetual haze whining and dining (and whining). Highlights from season one include a game of Twister with her assistant Kim, a consultation with a pet psychic to determine the cause of her dog Sugar Pie’s anxiety (she needs a boyfriend), an appearance on The Tonight Show, and a visit to the D.M.V. where we get to see her fail her learner permit’s exam. E!’s ad line for the series is “It’s not supposed to be funny. It just is.” Translation: “We know you are laughing at this pathetic creature. It’s OK. So are we.” The Anna Nicole Show may have been conceived as a reality show. But it’s really a side show.
Ironically, the very same week in January that five new reality shows debuted (Surreal Life, Celebrity Mole: Hawaii, Joe Millionaire, and High School Reunion), PBS aired a tribute to reality television’s first bona-fide star. Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family is the final chapter in the 1973 PBS cinema verite documentary series, An American Family. Academy Award filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond once again turn their camera on the family that became a household name back in the early 70’s: the William C. Loud Family. The Loud Family is comprised of Bill, his now ex-wife Pat, and their five children: Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, Michelle. The focus of the Raymonds’ latest effort is the eldest son, Lance, 50, who we see spending his last days as an AIDS patient in the Carl Bean Hospice in Los Angeles. Even though his body was weakened by his battle with HIV and Hepatitis C, Lance asked the Raymonds, with whom the Loud family had remained friendly, to document his final months.
When the original series aired in the spring of 1973, over 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the daily exploits of the Louds, an upper middle class family living in Santa Barbara, California. As the series’ producer/creator Craig Gilbert explained in his introduction to the show, his intention was not to present the Louds as the typical American family, but simply as an American family. In the first episode, we are introduced to Bill, who runs his own company, Pat, a stay at home mother, and their five children, all of whom, except 20-year-old Lance, are still in school.
The Raymonds shot three hundred hours of footage over a seven month period, which was pared down to 12 hours. While each episode focused on one or two family members, the central conflict running throughout the early episodes was the marital tension between the Louds, which culminated in episode nine with Pat asking her husband to move out. Many viewers assumed their break-up had to do with the presence of the cameras, but the Louds, who later divorced, claimed their marriage was on shakey ground before the filming began.
By far the most memorable member of the Loud clan was old Lance, who, in the first episode, is living in New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel where he hopes to get a job at an underground magazine. Flamboyant (and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word), free-spirited, and candid when it comes to expressing his opinions about everything from art to his siblings, Lance became the first openly gay male to appear on an American television series. More importantly, unlike the police and medical dramas of the early 1970s, Lance’s homosexuality was never presented as a problem because his family accepted the fact that he was gay. As Jeffrey Ruoff writes in his insightful analysis of the series, An American Family: A Televised Life , “Lance Loud did not come out on American TV; American television came out of the closet through An American Family.”
Some critics regarded the show as innovative and revealing. Others attacked it by attacking the Louds, who Newsweek’s Shana Alexander referred to as “affluent zombies”. Lance also became an easy target for those who rejected the idea that the show offered little, if any, insight into the American way of life. The most scathing personal attack came from (ironically) feminist author Anne Roiphe, who makes reference in a February 1973 New York Times Magazine essay to Lance’s “flamboyant, leechlike homosexuality”.
Thirty years later, despite his ailing health, Lance has not lost his sense of humor or his willingness to be completely open and honest to the camera. By intercutting footage from the original series as well as An American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later, which aired on HBO in 1983, the Raymond’s trace Lance’s life over the past 30 years, including his short-lived success as the lead singer of his band, The Mumps, his addiction to crystal meth, and his battle with HIV and Hepatitis C. While it’s difficult to see the health of someone who was once so vital and full of life deteriorate, Lance remained his witty, loquacious self up until his death in December of 2001.
Lance admits his decision to share with the Raymonds what is perhaps the most private part of anyone’s life was to bring closure to the series that turned him into an overnight celebrity. I believe it was a very brave decision. For those of us who remember when television introduced us that unabashed gay 21-year old who painted his hair silver and made no apologies for who he was, Lance Loud and the legacy of An American Family serves as an important reminder of television’s untapped potential to move us, to open our eyes, and to see the world beyond our backyard.