Department of Theatre and Film
Lost in Santa Barbara: AN AMERICAN FAMILY and the Birth of Reality TV
Santa Barbara, California was the setting for the first-ever American “reality” television program in 1973. A twelve-part, twelve-hour public television documentary, An American Family featured the “day-to-day” lives of a white, upper-middle-class family, Bill and Pat Loud, along with their five children – and their well-appointed Santa Barbara canyon ranch house. It also revealed the end of the Louds’ marriage. Not surprisingly perhaps, An American Family unleashed an avalanche of charged commentary, both about the Loud family and the truthfulness of the production. Rather more surprising were the charged critical responses to the Santa Barbara/Southern California setting, which both reflected and promoted the then current “culture wars” between the East and West Coasts. This essay considers the critical discourses about the series and its Santa Barbara location, the processes that led to the selection of both the city and the Louds, and will note briefly the significance of location as a convention in many of today’s reality television shows.
Santa Barbara is the first thing introduced in the first episode of An American Family. In fact, its first image is a wide shot of the Santa Barbara coastline, held for a moment until a slow pan reveals the documentary’s producer, Craig Gilbert, standing rather awkwardly atop a picturesque hill. In his only on-camera appearance, Gilbert introduces the series, explains the seven-month-long recording process, and works to preempt objections about the effects of the cameras on the Louds. Next, Gilbert provides a brief description and analysis of the immigrant history of the Loud family’s ancestors:
The Loud family, like all families, has a history. Their ancestors came from Ireland, England, Germany, and Scotland to settle on the Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest. Near the turn of the century, these families began moving, like the frontier, slowly westward. What were they looking for? Like most of us, I suppose, they were looking for better business opportunities, better places to raise children, better places to live.
After noting that both Bill’s and Pat’s parents ultimately settled in Eugene, Oregon, Gilbert makes a suggestive rhetorical move, claiming that Bill and Pat moved south to Santa Barbara because, “unlike their parents, they could no longer move west, the frontier was gone.” Then, despite the beauty that surrounds him, Gilbert describes Santa Barbara using fairly dry, city-guide style statistics with attention to population (73,000) and geographic location (“on the slope of the Santa Ynez mountains, fac[ing] south on the Pacific Ocean, ninety miles north of Los Angeles”). With his introduction, and his reference to the lost Western frontier, Gilbert suggests the perspective that helps to inform subsequent episodes: that Santa Barbara is not only the setting of the series, it is likely one of the causal factors in the demise of the Louds, a family that seems to typify the very essence of the American dream. After Gilbert’s prologue, the opening credit sequence introduces each of the family members individually in brief film segments, and the series’ title appears in bold, white-on-red letters. Then, in a less-than-subtle move that distills the documentary’s pessimism and also reveals the demise of the Loud family, the word “Family” cracks like shattering glass, with a shrill musical effect that underscores the point.
Conceived in 1971 by Craig Gilbert for National Education Television (WNET), An American Family premiered between January and March 1973. It was an epic and unprecedented undertaking, with a $1,200,000 budget and a seven-month shooting schedule that produced 300 hours of footage. An American Family was also enormously popular and controversial, and earned unprecedented ratings for public television—with an estimated ten million viewers for each episode (Ruoff xi). Viewers were primed to watch by extensive pre-broadcast publicity and some lurid WNET print advertisements that ran each Thursday morning of the twelve-week series in anticipation of that night’s episode. The ads were dominated by photographs of the family and headlines that read: “Are you Ready for ‘An American Family’?”; “Would you live next door to the Louds?”; and in reference to Lance, the openly gay eldest son who lived for part of the series in New York City’s legendary Chelsea hotel: “He dyed his hair silver and his clothes purple” (Ruoff xvi, 100). An American Family had a huge popular cultural impact, and the Louds became instant celebrities. Indeed, soon after the series premiered, as The Nation magazine put it, they were “popping up all over the place.” Throughout 1973 and into 1974, the Louds appeared in dozens of magazine interviews and features; they made the cover of Newsweek, and appeared on television talk and variety shows such as The Dick Cavett Show and The Dating Game. Even the cartoonists Garry Trudeau and Jim Berry (among others) did their part by parodying the Louds.
As for the genesis of An American Family, it occurred in the midst of the women’s and civil rights’ movements in 1971, when the recently-divorced, admittedly angry, middle-aged documentary producer Craig Gilbert, whose resumé included the Margaret Mead project New Guinea Journal, asked himself some provocative questions: “What is going on here? Why are men and women having such a tough time? The problem seemed a simple one. How could I discover what women were feeling as women and in their roles as wives and mothers and what men were feeling as men and in their roles as husbands and fathers? My instincts and the increasing evidence all around me of broken and disintegrating relationships and marriages told me some disturbing force was at work” (Gilbert 26). The producer was convinced that a documentary project would provide some answers, so he made a proposal to WNET executives that outlined his plan to find a family and film its “daily life” for a one-year period. Also, convinced that “family life in the United States was embattled – disappearing,” Gilbert told the Louds themselves that he wanted to document the American family before “it became obsolete” (Loud 89).
Craig Gilbert admitted in pre-screening publicity that he was inspired to make An American Family in order to refute the television sitcom images of American families as happy, healthy, and strong – like those in The Brady Bunch and Ozzie and Harriet. As he had observed: “In all these shows, the family was middle-class, attractive, and lived in a house (as opposed to an apartment) in what appeared to be a suburb of a large city” (Gilbert 27). He was further convinced that the sitcom images of domestic bliss had fed the “comfortable fantasies” of millions of viewers. Conveniently, his production crew (Alan and Susan Raymond) agreed with Gilbert’s claims regarding the impact of such hyperbolized images of happy TV families, saying: “an entire generation of viewers was unconsciously traumatized because they could never measure up to the image of family life they saw on the screen” (Raymond, “Filming An American Family” 19). Gilbert therefore aimed to find a television family that “looked reassuringly comfortable and familiar [because] I wanted to hook viewers before they began to realize they were in for an experience considerably different from the one offered by Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet” (Gilbert 27). Accordingly, he looked for a similarly telegenic family: affluent, attractive, with a professional dad, a stay-at-home mom, and a passel of active kids. Bill and Pat Loud and their five teenagers were made to order – as was their lovely Southern California location.
But before he found the Louds, Gilbert scouted locations. California seemed to carry nearly mythical weight for the producer. As he explained to The Atlantic magazine, California was the source of new American trends – where “American culture is fashioned,” including those nefarious happy family sitcoms made in Hollywood. So convinced was Gilbert regarding the cultural significance of California that he declared: “Any day now America will become California” (McCarthy 76). Also, apparently inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” Pat Loud in her autobiography recalled that Gilbert characterized California as the “Last Frontier…the setting most appropriate to ‘that most pervasive of fantasies, the American Dream’” (Loud 88). As Gilbert put it: “In the early days of our country the quest for happiness and fulfillment had led men and women toward the West and…I had a hunch that the dream had only slightly dimmed in the past 200 years” (Gilbert 28). Gilbert did not further develop his notions regarding the frontier but, as will be discussed below, it was an aspect of his discourse that was echoed by and seems to have informed the views of several critics and commentators. Further, his reference to the lost frontier in relation to the Louds enabled him to predict a dire future for the American family in general.
For three months, Gilbert searched along the California coast, including in Los Angeles and Palo Alto, interviewing about fifty families without success (Gilbert 28). Finally, he found additional inspiration from another popular fiction source, when he happened to read the new 1971 Ross Macdonald detective novel, The Underground Man. As Gilbert later confessed to Commentary magazine, the novel “described with absolute accuracy the kind of family I was looking for” (Sanborn 80).
Ross Macdonald, the pen name of Kenneth Millar, was an award-winning novelist and a resident of Santa Barbara. His recurring hard-boiled detective, Lew Archer, often finds himself in “Santa Teresa,” which is a pseudonym for Santa Barbara, and the novels were admired for their precise evocations of the city and California. The Underground Man features several iconic Santa Barbara settings: picturesque hills, canyons, and beaches, in addition to a few grand estates and swimming pools. Also useful, for Gilbert’s purposes, were Macdonald’s detective-novel themes, like family betrayal and tortured relationships between men and women, and stories about affluent and decadent characters for whom, as the magazine writer Sara Sanborn put it, “glossy exteriors cover hidden taint, moral degeneration, selfishness, and mutual exploitation of epic proportions” (80). The many murders in The Underground Man are all the result of family estrangements and betrayals, of husbands and wives who have run off with other husbands and wives and left behind embittered relatives whose lives are “robbed of all meaning” (Macdonald 18). Of the many families that populate The Underground Man, not a single one is intact or otherwise “healthy.”
Macdonald’s characters and location were spot-on for Gilbert’s vision of the decaying American dream and the American family, so he traveled to Santa Barbara, got in touch with the novelist himself, and asked for his help in finding a family. Macdonald agreed and introduced Gilbert to the women’s section editor at the Santa Barbara News Press, Mary Every, who also happened to be a friend of the Loud family. After listening to Gilbert’s pitch, Every drove him through the Santa Barbara hills to the Loud family home at 35 Woodale Lane. After meeting the “attractive and articulate” family, a delighted Gilbert later enthused: “I had only been in their home for ten minutes when I knew…we had our family” (Gaines 47). Critics often referenced Gilbert’s good fortune in finding the Louds; Family Circle magazine characterized them as “handsome, Christmas-card people” (Dowling 38), and Vogue magazine quipped: “The manufacturer of Barbie dolls could not have typecast a family better” (Brown 68).
For the most part, the specific production strategies used for An American Family followed the “direct cinema” methodology. In the United States, direct cinema has often been called “cinema vérité,” including by Craig Gilbert, but there are important distinctions between them, particularly in terms of the filmmaker’s role. In cinema vérité, the filmmaker functions, to use documentary scholar Erik Barnouw’s term, as an on-camera “catalyst” for the events being filmed. Moreover, the cinema vérité filmmaker’s involvement in the process is revealed explicitly. Therefore, one might hear and see the filmmaker asking his or her subjects questions or otherwise engaging in conversations with them. In contrast, the direct cinema paradigm emphasizes the filmmaker’s purported efforts not to interfere with, nor to control, events, but merely to record them. In short, the direct cinema practitioner must never, ever ask anybody to do anything for the camera. The “direct cinema” term itself indicates the filmmaker’s aim to provide direct access to reality in an unmediated, “objective” way, much like an invisible observer. A WNET print advertisement evoked the direct cinema methodology: “The Louds are not actors. They had no scripts. They simply lived. And were filmed” (Ruoff xvii). Also, as An American Family’s production team explained, they had unlimited access to film stock and they “were asked not to stage or recreate anything for the camera but to try to capture as honestly as possible the daily life” of the Loud family (Raymond, “An American Family” 590). The direct cinema mode also favors specific stylistic and technical strategies, including long-duration takes using mobile, easily maneuverable, and synchronous film and sound equipment, with smaller crews. Direct cinema principles extend to the editing process too, as final films are to adhere as closely as possible to the actual order of events as they were filmed.
An American Family observes both the routine and exceptional events in the Louds’ lives from late May 1971 to January 1st, 1972. The principal film and sound crew consisted of the husband-and-wife team, Alan and Susan Raymond, who spent seven days a week, about ten to twelve hours each day with the Louds in their “rambling” ranch-style, twelve-room house. The Raymonds explained that although their “focal point” for filming was the Louds’ home, a routine day’s shooting involved the following: “We moved around a great deal: in and around the house, to the father’s office, to the high school, following one or more of the family members… Luncheons, rock band rehearsals, shopping expeditions, dance classes, dates, meeting someone at the airport – these were typical scenes” (Raymond, “An American Family” 591). There were also many scenes that took place around the Louds’ backyard swimming pool, as will be discussed further on.
To be clear, however, An American Family ignored the direct cinema ethos in some important ways; in addition to Gilbert’s on-camera introduction and his occasionally recurring voiceover, the first full scene that introduces the Louds was shot during the last day the film crew spent with them, on New Year’s 1972. Furthermore, Gilbert’s voiceover reveals in that first scene that the Louds’ marriage had ended four months earlier. As a result, the separation of Bill and Pat Loud is the key detail around which the episodes are organized, and the rest of the series consists of a seven-month-long flashback whose events are presented in chronological order for the most part. From its first scene, the series presents the Loud family as a failed one, and several subsequent episodes anticipate the revelation of the events that are finally shown during the ninth episode when Pat informs Bill that she wants a divorce.
One scene in particular provided suggestive clues about the troubled relationship between Bill and Pat Loud, and it also conveyed the superficial and privileged Santa Barbara lifestyle of both the couple and their social set. Included in the first episode, it takes place during a sunny cocktail party on the well-manicured grounds of a country club. The scene also is fascinating for evoking the characters and milieu of The Underground Man. Noteworthy are the shots of a well-liquored Bill as he shamelessly flirts with another woman – though his wife is nearby, and then makes inquiries about another woman who will be returning to Santa Barbara. Bill’s demeanor evokes the novel’s description of one of the principal characters: “In spite of the drink in his hand, and the dead-fish gleam of previous drinks in his eyes, his large handsome face was sober, almost lugubrious” (Macdonald 83). As the documentary scholar Jeffrey Ruoff has observed, the scene comes closest to “capturing the mood” of Ross Macdonald’s novels, as it shows the “careless party chatter, the sunglasses, the liquor, the leathered faces, the Hawaiian shirts, and the suggestion of extramarital affairs [that] combine to create an atmosphere of upper-middle-class suburban decadence, California-style” (62).
There was a storm of commentary about An American Family when it premiered in 1973. In addition to television reviewers and cultural critics, those who passed judgment on the Louds and the series included an array of professional experts – university professors, psychiatrists, sociologists, and anthropologists. The most famous and often-quoted response was issued by the prestigious and renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, whom Gilbert knew from his work on 1968’s Margaret Mead’s New Guinea Journal. Mead was enthusiastic about the documentary, claiming that it offered: “a new kind of art form…as new and as significant as the invention of drama or the novel—a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera” (Mead 21). A few of the less enthusiastic critics also made comparisons to other media forms, but in a disapproving way, including Time magazine, which dubbed the series the “ultimate soap opera,” while The Nation called it a “spy drama,” and Newsweek in 1974 declared it “a kind of diary of a mad household.” But, by far, most of the early commentary addressed – and often condemned – the Louds and their Santa Barbara lifestyle. Many critics were unabashed in their contempt for the Louds, including their decision to invite cameras into their private lives. Among many other disparaging things, they were called “media freaks” by Newsweek (Francke 58), and ‘”living symbol[s] of a culture in decline” by Time magazine (Stengel 58). And, in one of the more curious responses, The New Republic’s Roger Rosenblatt claimed the Louds “were born a TV program waiting to be discovered” (23).
The cultural critic Shana Alexander offered an even nastier assessment of the Louds and their lifestyle:
[T]he most striking thing about the Louds is the unreality of their bleakly comfortable lives… At school, at home, at work and at play, these nice-looking people act like affluent zombies. Their shopping carts overflow, but their minds are empty…they embrace but do not feel, or are unable to communicate what they feel, or even to identify it. …image is all. The family responds most to the appearance of success... The awful silence of the Louds finally becomes deafening. (28)
The family’s upper-middle-class prosperity was the result of Bill Loud’s lucrative and perfectly named company (given Craig Gilbert’s implied thesis), American Western Foundries, which brokered parts for strip mining equipment. An American Family certainly foregrounds the Louds’ affluence and material possessions so, not surprisingly, they were inevitably noted by scornful critics who cited them as evidence of California’s superficiality. John O’Connor’s review in The New York Times was typical:
The Louds are fairly ordinary inhabitants of that crowded American arena known as white middle class affluence. The parents and five children, the ranch house and four cars, the pool and assorted animals, project a surface image that would do credit to the average TV commercial. (AL-137)
The Harper’s writer was more offended, calling the Louds “rich California showoffs” and complaining that the show “batters the audience with images of affluence” (Menaker 98, 99). However, the local writer Mary Every put things in perspective, clarifying the Louds’ economic status (and proving that everything is relative): “The family is more affluent than average, but not pretentiously so. The several cars…show wear and tear; and the home looks lived in” (A-10).
Not surprisingly, critics addressed the validity of the project, its “reality” claims, and especially the potential influence of the cameras on the Louds. The Santa Barbara News Press’s Rick DuBrow, for example, noted the obvious: “One almost always feels that the Louds are aware of the cameras trained on them” (A-13). Indeed, several critics charged that if there were problems with An American Family’s objectivity, it was not the fault of the filmmakers, but of the Louds themselves. Thus, Newsweek alleged that they “play[ed] for the camera” (March 12, 1973, 49), and The New York Times Magazine called them “exhibitionists” (Roiphe 8). Many of the critical digs had more than the whiff of a cultural and geographic divide: between the East Coast and the West Coast. Nora Ephron, for example, complained that the series was the result of “the illiterate Californians trying to impress the erudite Easterners; [and] the boring, slothful family attempting to come up with a dramatic episode to justify all that footage” (55).
Of course, for the Louds, Santa Barbara was their hometown. For the filmmakers, it was a location. And for the producer, Craig Gilbert, it was the end of the frontier—and the antithesis, in many ways, of the East Coast. Discourses about An American Family often evoked stereotypes about Santa Barbara and issued judgments about its degraded “lifestyle” and about the superficiality of California in general. Although Bill Loud confessed that he had expected the series would make the family look like the “West Coast Kennedys,” Esquire’s wag disagreed, calling them “quaint Californians” (Miller 239). The Loud children were not immune to critical barbs. For example, Commentary magazine’s Sara Sanborn claimed that they displayed so little education or intelligence that the only evidence that these “happy, hedonistic children of the California sun do in fact go to school” are the scenes that show them there (79). Even their school, Santa Barbara High, was insulted by the series’ cameraman, Alan Raymond, who exclaimed: “The classes were unbelievable. Classes in leadership qualities! These bizarre California-type classes!” (Ward 30).
Cued by Craig Gilbert’s own pre-series pronouncements, much of the East Coast versus West Coast discourse echoed the producer’s references to California and the lost frontier of the West. The New York novelist Anne Roiphe, author of Up the Sandbox, wrote a New York Times Magazine essay that offered the most provocative and strange ruminations on this point; her comments also evoked the East and West Coast antipathy. Although she concluded that, in general, the “Louds live desperate lives without rules or meaning,” Roiphe took a particular shine to one of the children, the seventeen-year-old, aspiring rock star Grant, whom she found warm and charming, though she worried about his future given what she called his “nonexistent” self discipline (41). Roiphe concluded that Grant was a victim of his time—and place: “I imagine that if Grant had lived on the frontier of America 150 years ago and had been forced to accomplish daily survival tasks, he would indeed have been a hero—or at least a man . . . However . . . he has many growing years ahead in which to make his own frontier and conquer it” (41). Then, perhaps to account for the ultimate failure of the Louds as a family, Roiphe adjudicated their cultural shortcomings, and by extension, Californians’:
My first realization was that all the avenues of culture as I have understood them were missing from the Loud family life. If there is such a thing as negative culture or culture minus, the Louds have it. The blaring sound of rock is the high point of creativity in the family. There are no crafts, no basket-weaving, no pottery or jewelry-making . . .There is no sense of the beyond . . . no real moral right or wrong . . . They value prettiness, success, and they do not seem to worry about those who do not make it. (51)
In contrast, Roiphe was much more impressed by her fellow New Yorker, Craig Gilbert, whom she called, “a soft and kind man, intellectual, artistic, an amateur anthropologist, a worrier, an introvert” (50).
Although Roiphe shared Gilbert’s East Coast perspective, at least a few critics specifically noted that the producer and An American Family’s film crews were all from New York, and some further charged that the series, from the outset, had been informed by a conflict between the two coasts. The Atlantic writer Abigail McCarthy was one of the few early critics who were sympathetic to the Louds; she charged that it was not the Louds, but Craig Gilbert himself who had failed in California – as a documentarian. Though she tended to agree with other critics that said An American Family showed a cliché family “whose unity seemed…meaningless…and temporary,” she concluded that it was really Craig Gilbert’s story – not the Louds’ (73). Later, in her autobiography, Pat Loud echoed McCarthy’s conclusion: “I think we were more real to Craig on celluloid than we ever were in the flesh” (Loud 104). But McCarthy went further in her critique of Gilbert, by attending to his problematic ethics. Specifically, she chastised the producer for using “a living, breathing family” as content for his preconceived form; that is, his Ross Macdonald vision of Santa Barbara/Southern California (73, 76).
Certainly, critics who read the Louds as representative of Southern California and as the antithesis of the East were primed by An American Family’s pattern of allusions to the stereotypical cultural divide, which is most explicitly introduced during the often discussed second episode, when Pat visits her eldest son Lance in New York City. Interestingly, the pattern is introduced via Lance, when he tells a new friend at the Chelsea Hotel about his hometown of Santa Barbara and its differences from New York: “Everybody is so much more pretty but they don’t have minds. They’re all so stupid. [Being a kid in Santa Barbara was like] being a little white mouse entrapped in a box.” Then, after returning to Santa Barbara, Pat confirms the pattern when she tells Bill her first impressions of New York City were that: “It was all so strange and different,” though she admits the city is a more fitting environment for Lance. Then, in the fifth episode, as if on cue, Pat addresses the early-1970s fear that California was fated to “drop into the ocean”: “Yes we succumb to hysteria about every six months…The theory is that all of California is like Sodom and Gomorrah . . . God’s wrath and all that rot.”
For their part, Bill and Pat Loud acknowledged their unambiguous recognition of the East/West conflict. In response to the torrent of nasty criticism about her family and their choice to be documentary subjects, Pat immediately went on the defensive. In an interview with Colette Dowling from the women’s magazine, Family Circle, Pat acknowledged the cultural power of the East Coast, and she did so with some characteristically California style: “When a New York producer says, ‘Gee your family’s neat; I’d like to do a television show on you,’ it’s like being handed an Oscar” (Dowling 38). But Pat was even more definitive in her autobiography about what she called the “East-West cultural lag” between her family and the filmmakers, and she suggested its impact on the documentary itself: “what was really going on was an encounter between the inarticulate, optimistic, shallow, materialistic Californians and the gloomy, brilliant, neurotic, verbal, two-faced New Yorkers” (95). Pat likewise dismissed some of the negative critical commentary about her family in a Santa Barbara News Press interview with Jon Nordheimer: “It was just the intellectuals from the East who looked down on us with such sadness and pity. We were the Western barbarians raising a generation of more barbarians” (C2). Bill also weighed in with his own blunt critique of the East Coast filmmakers, telling Rick DuBrow: “They had a preconceived liberal leftist view that our values are wrong” (A-13). Abigail McCarthy largely agreed with the Louds regarding the producer’s East Coast bias:
What empathy could the verbal and socially aware New York producers and film crew summon for laconic and largely extroverted Californians who are strangers to self-examination? The experience is different. The artist’s struggle to master materials is, in this case, reflected in finding fault with the materials – faulting, that is, the Louds, the way they lived and met their problems. (75)
The often shown, and inevitably noted, kidney-bean-shaped, turquoise-colored family swimming pool was a tidy symbol, for both the filmmakers and critics, of the shortcomings of the Louds and Southern California. The swimming pool was also emblematic of the cultural divide between the East and West Coasts. Certainly, the pool effectively conveyed the Louds’ lifestyle, which Vogue’s writer called the “American Dream, California division” (Brown 68), but it was also considered evidence of what Sara Sanborn deemed the family’s “idle” and “unoccupied” lives (79). Certainly, as a quintessential signifier of decadence and hedonism, the swimming pool is ubiquitous in representations of Southern California, and An American Family is punctuated by noteworthy poolside scenes. For example, after Pat asks Bill to move out of the family’s home, several sequences show her, apparently depressed, lying alone by the pool. Equally dramatic is a scene that takes place during the seventh episode, when a somewhat stern Pat and a more easygoing Bill lecture their seventeen-year-old son Grant about the error of his misspent summer days. The scene is immediately preceded by shots of Bill sunbathing shirtless, with a sun reflector, and during the scene with Grant, both Pat and Bill are in their swimsuits and are shiny with sun lotion. As a result, it appears that their frivolous sunbathing has been interrupted by the more serious work of issuing a parental lecture. The pool’s appearances seemed especially to incense critics, with many using them to support their judgments about the troubled communication between Pat and Bill as a couple, between them and their kids, and as evidence of the family’s shallow and purposeless lives. Anne Roiphe was so provoked that she exaggerated the frequency of the family’s use of the pool – and she summoned her most charged metaphor to insult them: “When they’re in the house they lie by the pool which, clear blue as it was, I began to see as a fetid swamp breeding a kind of fly that gives us all a fatal case of cultural malaria” (52). Even a Santa Barbara News Press writer, Helen Benson, scoffed that Pat Loud’s reportedly limited social life might have improved after her divorce, if she had spent less time at the pool (C-12). Pat Loud later got some revenge against her critics, especially Roiphe’s “fetid swamp” barb, when she opened her autobiography, Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story, with the news that, “I still live in the house, but the pool is empty now (drained out for an acid bath)” (9).
An American Family remained a subject of popular discourse for several years after it was first broadcast in 1973. It also inspired a similar project, the 1974 BBC production A Family. In the States, it was parodied in the mid-1970s on Saturday Night Live, in sketches about “The Louds” – a family that never talks but only shouts at each other. Then, in 1979, Albert Brooks famously satirized Craig Gilbert’s project and its disastrous effects on the Louds in the feature mockumentary, Real Life, about a suburban family that at first welcomes the attention of the comedian-cum-documentary producer (played by Brooks), until his constant observation and meddling destroys them. Of course, more importantly, although it took almost twenty years, An American Family also spawned reality television.
In 1990, as the reality television scholar Mark Andrejevic has noted, the producers Jon Murray and Mary Ellis Bunim cited An American Family as the direct inspiration for their still-running MTV series, The Real World, and that their specific goal was to “remake [the series] for the MTV generation” (71). Today’s reality television represents a familiar and lucrative genre with many formats. The category that focuses on what Andrevejic has defined as “the comprehensive surveillance of the daily lives and unscripted interactions” of people who agree to make their lives public is present in the shows Big Brother, Jersey Shore, and The Real World, among many others (64). However, in such shows there is no pretense about providing an unmediated view of reality, as in direct cinema. Instead, they combine the direct cinema style and cinema vérité strategies because, as Andrejevic notes, the camera functions as a “deliberate provocation” to the shows’ “castmates” (71). However, the foregrounding of location in An American Family is echoed and has become a convention in many contemporary reality shows that use familiar and often easily stereotyped locations to inform their organization and to serve thematic ends, including The Real Housewives and The Real World franchises. Specifically, in such shows well-known cities and other familiar locations function as simplistic markers of cultural and social difference and are suggestive of the characters that inhabit them and of the conflicts that animate them. Thus, recalling Craig Gilbert’s selection of Santa Barbara because it evoked a host of useful connotations about California and the West Coast, a number of reality shows similarly deploy reductive location-based stereotypes – of Orange County’s breast-implanted blondes and Beverly Hills’ mansion-dwelling socialites in The Real Housewives, for example. Likewise, MTV’s Jersey Shore features a set of castmates that not only reflect but proudly declare their allegiance to the stereotypes associated with their particular location – of tanned, aggressive, hard-drinking young “guidos” and “guidettes.”
In April 2011, thirty-eight years after making their famous and infamous television debut, the Loud family and their Santa Barbara lifestyle were resurrected in the HBO feature film Cinema Vérité (Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini). Focusing on the production of An American Family, the film emphasizes the problematic and ethically challenged relationship Craig Gilbert developed with the Louds. Not surprisingly, the scenes set in the Louds’ carefully art-directed mid-century house with its often-visible shiny blue swimming pool are prominent. Thus, the prediction Time magazine’s Richard Stengel made in 1983 has come true: “it seems clear that when the map of Television Land is drawn, the [multi] room Loud ranch house will be as much a landmark as the Cleaver family’s two-story white colonial” (74).
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Miller, Merle. “Dear Pat, Bill, Lance, Delilah, Grant, Kevin and Michele.” Esquire (May 1973): 240-241. Print.
Nordheimer, Jon. “Loud Extravaganza: A Year Has Passed.” Santa Barbara News Press (31 March 1974): C-2. Print.
O’Connor, John. “Mr. & Mrs. Loud, Meet the Bradys.” The New York Times (4 March 1973): AL-137. Print.
Raymond, Alan and Susan. “Filming An American Family.” Filmmaker’s Newsletter (March 1973): 19-21. Print.
Raymond, Alan and Susan. “An American Family.” American Cinematographer (May 1973): 591-593+. Print.
Roiphe, Anne. “Things Are Keen But Could Be Keener.” The New York Times Magazine (18 February 1973): 8-9, 41-53. Print.
Rosenblatt, Roger. “Residuals on ‘An American Family.’” The New Republic (23 November 1974): 20-24. Print.
Ruoff, Jeffrey. American Family: A Televised Life. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.
Sanborn, Sara. “‘An American Family.’” Commentary (May 1973): 78-80. Print.
“Spy Drama.” The Nation (5 March 1972): 293. Print. – cited on p. 9
Stengel, Richard. “Looking In on the Louds.” Time (22 August 1983): 74. Print.
“Ultimate Soap Opera.” Time (22 January 1973): 36. Print.
Ward, Melinda. “The Making of An American Family.” Film Comment (November 1973): 24-31.