An American Family: A Televised Life
by Jeffrey Ruoff
Published by University of Minnesota Press
163 pages, 2001
Bang the Drum Loudly
Reviewed by Richard Klin
From May to December 1971, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California -- parents Bill and Pat, sons Lance, Kevin and Grant, daughters Delilah and Michelle -- were filmed going about their daily lives for an eye-opening, unrelenting total of 300 hours. Under the aegis of producer Craig Gilbert, the finished product, An American Family, was shown in 12 episodes to a transfixed viewing public. Broadcast in 1973, the groundbreaking PBS chronicle engendered an absolutely enormous amount of attention, notoriety and commentary.
An American Family, such fodder for dissection at the time, has essentially passed from media memory. This year -- the 30th anniversary of the show's original airing -- PBS has promised to rebroadcast an episode. Airings of the show are few and far between. As of this writing, the series is oddly unavailable on video. If An American Family is at all recalled today, it is essentially as a curio. Basically two incidents are considered seminal: the real-life, on-air dissolution of Bill and Pat's marriage, and the celebrated "coming out" of eldest son Lance. Nowadays, when the show is discussed -- if at all -- the nature of the series is dumbed-down; it is now the supposed forerunner of "reality television." The implication is that there is a strong causal connection between the Louds' complicated family saga and today's exhibitionist, omnivorous media: MTV's Real World or Survivor or Blind Date.
Media scholar Jeffrey Ruoff's book, An American Family: A Televised Life, stands as an insightful, long-overdue undertaking and a sterling look at the seminal, though oft-overlooked, series.
It cannot be a coincidence that An American Family, such an important event in the annals of television history, has fallen into relative obscurity, just as its decade, the 1970s, has itself been relegated by a revisionist slant that has cast the entire era as one of mindless, coke-fueled hedonism, ubiquitous kitsch, disco, funny hair and Charlie's Angels. On some level, of course, it's not entirely unfair. The 1970s has a huge legacy of silliness and there's nothing wrong -- in fact, quite the opposite -- in dissecting The Brady Bunch. But there's now such a thorough, pervasive recasting that is not just a distortion, but a reactionary distortion as well. It completely elides what was in reality a gritty, expansive -- and from today's sad vantage point -- an era of astonishing progress. It is no accident that An American Family has been cut from the sanitized 70s canon. The present-day, lightweight view of the 1970s leaves no room for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, or Earth Day, Kent State, Ramparts magazine -- all products of the 1970s, not the 1960s. There is no room for a look at the rise of new political forces that transpired during that time: feminism, gay rights, ecology, or that one could look at a magazine such as Rolling Stone and see politics and issues discussed in its pages. Or that rock milestones associated with the 60s actually took place later -- such as the death of Jim Morrison, in 1971. It was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency -- not because he cared at all about the planet, of course -- but such were the prevailing political currents to a degree simply unimaginable today.
It was precisely against these backdrops in which An American Family was conceived and launched: this "exceptional program," Ruoff writes, "that broke the rules of television production." The era had also spawned a brief, very important interregnum when corporate underwriting was far less a factor in non-commercial television. National Educational Television (NET) -- the forerunner to PBS -- and PBS itself were far less beholden to their corporate masters. Innovative, expansive programming was a concrete, attainable goal.
An American Family was, as Ruoff details, tremendously innovative. Making full use of a spate of technical innovations -- "lightweight portable cameras and wireless microphones" -- and almost entirely dispensing with traditional narration, An American Family occupies such a unique perch that the term documentary is, in a sense, inadequate. Gone was the traditional anchorperson, gone were the ubiquitous voice-overs and standard interviews. The amount of film, the time frame that was covered and the sheer scope of the project all served to set it apart. According to Jeffrey Ruoff, "...the recording of spontaneous action without scripts, the telling of a nonfiction narrative in episodic, serial form -- were later absorbed into commercial television in modified forms."
Ruoff's use of the term "nonfiction narrative" is not unintentional. An enormous amount of inspiration for the show's conception was a direct response to the ongoing political and social ferment, influences that transcended the usual criteria for works on television: the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and emerging countercultures that spawned a new journalism as well as the detective fiction of Ross Macdonald, with its southern California setting. It was, as Ruoff delineates, a culturally polyglot confluence that spawned An American Family. Not just a simple family profile, the show's touchstones were also to be an examination of the "surface/depth contrast" inherent in the abundant good life of (supposedly) carefree Santa Barbara.
An American Family's charged 12 episodes kicked off a spate of intensive, in-depth dissection, played out in the mass media, prestigious publications and with the input of intellectuals, critics and a memorable Doonesbury strip.
Ruoff's book is a perceptive, detailed work of media scholarship and as such fills its mandate quite effectively. But the show also serves as an enormous, almost unprecedented emotional touchstone. An American Family has oscillated from either its current place of semi-obscurity to period-piece freak show. The emotional wallop has rarely, if ever, been explored.
I am roughly the same age -- albeit slightly younger -- as the Loud children. Presumably none of the contemporaneous commentary vis-a-vis An American Family was generated by teenagers. To those of us of a certain age, the Loud family -- the kids -- are shockingly recognizable. Delilah is eerily familiar; her brothers too. My own upbringing was far less opulent than the well-heeled Louds, but their house, their world and their entire terrain are very, very evocative. Watching the show is the closest thing that exists to actually wandering back into one's own past. An American Family includes the most vivid portraiture of the quotidian rites and rituals of 70s teendom. The viewer is included in Delilah's oddly melancholy dance recital, in the brothers' garage band belting out "Summertime Blues." There is a welcome warm-and-fuzzy tone to today's parenting, but in An American Family Bill and Pat represent a foreign, incomprehensible and sometimes threatening outer world that often looms all too large. Adulthood then had its own awful, repugnant music, its out-of-touch mores, ridiculous slang and a vulgar day-to-day of cocktail parties, fancy cars, general intolerance and weird hair.
A look at the original criticisms of the show are fascinating. Many of the charges leveled were stunningly misguided. According to Jeffrey Ruoff, the Louds were branded by many as "smug." It is an astonishingly inaccurate assumption. The aura of sadness, not smugness, is palpable. It permeates the lives of the five children. The look on Delilah's face after an especially troubling phone conversation with father Bill is moving and gripping, as are Lance's often oddball attempts to somehow connect with his family. The Louds are victims of one of the cruelest American postwar innovations: the nuclear family. In one of the show's few voice-overs, Bill reads a woefully inadequate letter of advice to Lance, peppered with almost touchingly inappropriate maxims. Bill, the inadequate paterfamilias -- and in many ways the most unsympathetic of the family -- is ultimately a father unable to fathom the terra incognita that are his children.
There was additional criticism, Ruoff's book relates, directed at the family for a supposed "lack of historical consciousness and connections to wider society..." In a ludicrous broadside, writer Anne Roiphe took 15-year-old Delilah to task for her supposed disregard of "the migrant workers, the lettuce pickers, the war dead." Jeffrey Ruoff himself, a perceptive and sympathetic chronicler, decries a "historical context... completely missing from the... shows."
But the Louds are completely of their time, place and historical context. It is all part-and-parcel of the general restructuring that casts the 1960s as a time of total commitment and the 1970s as a time of sloth and self-indulgence. But the political pulse of the 1970s is less distinct and sadly easier to overlook, a pulse distinctive and yet maddeningly elusive, a counterculture everywhere and nowhere.
No era deserves uncritical homage. A simple paean to the 1970s would be grossly inaccurate. There was, of course, a good amount of darkness during that time. If one looks for kitsch and spectacle, it can be found. But there was much more not to laugh at, not to disregard. And it is inaccurate and tiresome to brand the Louds and their era as simple exercises in ego or frivolity. Television and media today overflow with Brady Bunch references, homages to American Bandstand, K.C. and the Sunshine Band; fun, irony-laden trivia. The story of the Louds is almost nowhere to be found. An American Family is moving, disturbing, funny and very, very real. It is television's finest moment. | February 2003
Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publisher's Weekly, Parabola and the Web zine LIP. He has recently completed a novel.