Reality TV was born in 'An American Family'

'Social experiments' begun 30 years ago live on in new shows

January 05, 2003|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television this week begins its midseason cycle of replacement series, and if you can't handle reality programming, you might as well turn off the tube.

Networks and cable channels will feature the debuts of some two dozen new reality series in the next four months -- five this week alone. Combined with series already on the air, like MTV's The Osbournes, and those returning for a second season, like NBC's Meet the Folks, it might seem like too much reality to bear.

But in the mix this week with such debased notions of reality as WB's The Surreal Life -- which places faded celebrities in singer Glen Campbell's former mansion to see how strange things can get -- is a profound PBS documentary that offers desperately needed context to the whole cultural megillah that reality television has become.

The film Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family (tomorrow night at 9 on WETA, Channel 26) is not about reality television per se. It is a chronicle of the life and last days of Lance Loud, who died at age 50 in December 2001 of hepatitis C at an AIDS hospice in California.

But Loud was part of a California family that allowed cameras into its home for seven months in 1971 to record what was perhaps the first show of the type, a 12-part, landmark PBS documentary called An American Family. The film aired in 1973 and caused a cultural firestorm, with the family and the film attacked in Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine, to name two of the more prominent and ill-informed venues.

An 'evil flower'

In addition to witnessing the upper-middle-class marriage of William and Pat Loud going bust, viewers of An American Family also met prime time's first gay teen-ager, Lance, with his black lipstick and dreams of singing in an underground band. In telling the story of Lance, one of reality television's first "stars," Lance Loud! illuminates the genre and the ways it can create celebrity and affect lives like nothing else onscreen.

Lance Loud! opens with some quick history about An American Family and the media's reaction to it, particularly in terms of Lance. The film cites a New York Times Magazine article written in 1973 by novelist Anne Roiphe that calls Lance an "evil flower," an "electric eel" and a "Goyaesque emotional dwarf," while referring to his "leechlike homosexuality."

But, while the press mostly got it wrong, there were others, like anthropologist Margaret Mead, who were more prescient. Lance Loud! shows Mead on a TV talk show in 1973 saying, "I think An American Family represents a new form which may be as significant for the understanding of human behavior as the invention of the novel."

Reality TV's 'mother'

As interesting as the history in tomorrow night's film is, it is merely prelude to what you'll find in An American Family: A Televised Life (University of Minnesota Press), written by Jeffrey Ruoff, an assistant professor of film and television at Dartmouth College.

In the preface to his 2001 book, Ruoff draws some important distinctions between the film and what's happening onscreen today: "Unlike the contrived situations and gameshow formats of current reality programming, the PBS documentary portrayed everyday life without embellishment. No prizes were awarded. There were no commercials because An American Family was not broadcast to make money."

But in a series of e-mail exchanges last week, Ruoff also affirmed the absolute link between the Louds and the current deluge of unscripted programs, calling An American Family "the mother of all reality programs." He stressed how An American Family and its descendants can shape notions of celebrity and break down "fixed distinctions between public and private, reality and spectacle, serial narrative and non-fiction, documentary and fiction."

I won't go as far as to claim that Mead's comment, Ruoff's book and Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family managed to break down the distinction in my mind between documentaries, which I almost always consider good things, and reality programs, which I generally think of as bad. But Lance Loud! -- with its wise messages about celebrity and poignant narrative of Loud spending his life trying to recapture the "fame" with which he had been capriciously anointed by television -- hangs over every new reality show I watch.

You can't help but think of his life as you watch the WB's The Surreal Life (Thursday night at 9 on WNUV, Channel 54), with such "celebrities" as Emmanuel Lewis (Webster), Gabrielle Carteris (Beverly Hills, 90210), Corey Feld-man (Goonies), Brande Roderick (Baywatch Hawaii) and Jerri Manthey (Survivor: the Australian Outback), along with rapper MC Hammer and Motley Crue singer Vince Neil, trying to live together in a house for two weeks.

Social experiments

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