PBS // 1973 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // September 11th, 2011
They made television history.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be revealing major events from the classic reality TV series ahead.
The Loud family allowed camera crews to tape their daily lives for several months in 1971. Nobody quite knew what they were in for with the project. Mundane things were captured without much fanfare, but astonishingly enough the filmmakers caught on their 16mm stock a family that imploded right before their eyes. A suddenly out gay son ran away to New York City to be with Andy Warhol's crowd, the parents ended up divorcing over bitter issues, and the whole clan became unwitting stars. PBS accidentally invented reality TV as this was the first Real Housewives of Orange County or something of that ilk. Unlike the slick shows we see now though, all of this is achingly real and unscripted. An American Family was twelve hours of television shown without narration, with no interviews, and it granted an honest look at a family that had no idea what would happen when the footage aired. They were hated for their affluence and despised for allowing cameras to document their private lives. The world criticized them when only forty years later they would have been stars of the highest regard.
The actual series was twelve one-hour episodes, but An American Family: Anniversary Edition contains merely the highlights of the PBS show. It runs exactly two hours and gathers together most of the high-drama moments. The only problem is we have little of the space between the epic events, and so it feels rushed and not always organic. You feel like seeing the whole series would be more rewarding, but there is no complete set yet. There are struggles over the music rights and other issues that have stopped that from happening so far. This may be as good as it gets for quite a while until some solutions are found for some of the classic rock that provided the background for the original shows.
The transfer is rough, but that is to be expected. An American Family was shot with handheld 16mm cameras, and so the footage is a mixed bag of slightly messy to complete travesty. The DVD transfer looks washed out, grainy, and what you would expect from 1973 television productions. It is cinema verite, and so what you see is what you get. Sound is equally hit and miss with some dialogue almost unintelligible. But that's all part of the charm of the show, and so we can't expect miracles in the transfer.
The DVD special features are simply a bunch of interviews including a vintage panel discussion from 1973 featuring anthropologist Margaret Mead. Then there are seven interviews recorded forty years later with the directors, producers, and crew. The Louds themselves are missing from this disc, and that is a big shame given that they are the subjects of all this fuss. The story is still interesting because we do get the full behind-the-scenes story about how they technically shot the show, but you wonder what the subjects went through as a result.
It's hard to believe that this show in 1973 showed a flamboyant gay man, an upper middle class couple divorcing, talk of infidelity, and all sorts of wild topics that today could seem mundane. Yet to imagine how this must have felt in the original broadcast when nothing like this had ever been seen before is mind boggling. Nowadays this would be regarded as quaint and nothing earth shattering, but back then it was a revolution. This is a great disc if you are curious about the start of reality TV or would like to see Lance Loud as one of the first gay men on a television series. For now An American Family: Anniversary Edition is the best view we will get of the groundbreaking series that established the future forty years ago.
Guilty of being the first glimpse of things to come.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Featurette