1973 TV

An American Family

T hanks to Laugh-In and Sesame Street and the quirky abbreviated installments of The Great American Dream Machine, the rigid language of genre-bound American TV had already begun to unravel in 1973. But even so, PBS's An American Family posed a new media challenge. Rendering the life of an affluent Santa Barbara family in TV vérité for 12 hour-long installments, the show promised broad cultural insights but delivered more intriguing specifics instead. Was an American family in trouble or the American family? Possibly the latter--the divorce rate was climbing--but definitely the former.

With five mostly adolescent kids and two stubborn parents, the Louds had many stories to offer and not all of them were pleasant. The self-centered dad, Bill, plays around a little too much and at one point is told on camera that his wife Pat has filed for divorce. Genial Grant is forced to take a boring hard-labor job (despite his hefty allowance) and share with the viewer his pathetic lessons about the value of a dollar. Flamboyant Lance, clearly gay but never identified as such, camps it up as he realizes the cameras can bring him fame but not understanding.

An American Family was made with mixed motives; it reached some confused and hypocritical conclusions but it was certainly a genuine TV event. It brought home to Americans the media's obsession with abnormality at the expense of "normality," suggesting that the whole revelatory vérité thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Soon after, the Watergate hearings, Police Story, and (a few years on) Albert Brooks's Real Life revealed the absurdity of separating fact from fiction and the thrill that comes from matching real with surreal. Like it or not, we have been living with An American Family ever since.

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