Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2003 / 7 Shevat, 5763
now and then
The realization that the typical
American family was not accurately presented
by "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Ricky and Lucy"
first appeared on television in 1971 with "All In
The Family," but that was a sit-com. A couple of
years later, a PBS series really slammed home
the other side of the so-called nuclear family in
"An American Family." The 12-part series took
us into the world of the Loud family who lived
outside Santa Barbara. Jerry Nachman
interviewed Dalton Delan, the so-called father of
Ten million people watched in voyeuristic fascination as, among other things, a marriage dissolved. It was reality TV long before the onset of The Osbournes and The Real World. The most dramatic revelation was that a son, Lance Loud, was gay. Lance Loud died in late 2001 of AIDS and hepatitis C. He asked the filmmakers to revisit him and his family.
It just came into my mind and I thought I cannot leave the planet without some form of closure from the series, because I didnt think that when last seen in the series, we were a desperate group, says Lance Loud in a videoclip from A Death in An American Family, a documentary produced recently about An American Family.
My parents were divorcing and I was heading toward drugs and slow destruction. Everyone was cut off from each other. And thats not the case of what it has become. I mean we are still together, we still love each other very, very much, Loud said.
AMERICAN FAMILY WAS FIRST
The sponsoring station for the new documentary is WETA in Washington. Its chief programming officer, Dalton Delan, talked about the new program, along with New York Post TV critic, Adam Buckman.
Dalton, do you ever get accused or do Alan and Susan Raymond, who produced the original Louds of being effectively Dr. Frankenstein in what you began?
It was definitely the mother of reality television, said Delan. Surreality television or mockumentary was what they used to call it. Its fallen a long way from the tree. But An American Family was the first, and Lance Loud was the first openly gay man on television, he says. The great anthropologist, Margaret Mead, said it the best. She actually said about the American Family series, that it was, for our age, the equivalent of drama and the novel for another age. That it was a new way for us to look at ourselves. I think she understood that this program was going to transform the way we depicted life.
When I was able to... old enough to appreciate it, I enjoyed the show, says Buckman. Its kind of interesting that many years, decades in fact, lapsed between American Family and the reality shows that we are here to talk about today. Now, if there had been a Loud family today, it would have been followed up immediately, if not sooner, by another family.
Today, theres another Loud family and theyre called The Osbournes.
Yes, but that was about 30 years later, says Buckman. And I think its telling that television didnt really catch up with whatever it is that American Family pioneered back then for a long time.
When Lance Loud revealed he was gay, it was an incredible moment. Divorce was bad, but public admission of homosexuality was unthinkable.
I think that at that time, you have to remember that, in that year, in 1973, at that time homosexuality was still a disease, an illness, says Delan. And it was only that year that it was changed in the American Psychology Association textbooks.
TODAYS REALITY SHOWS
Theres no question that the surreality shows, the mockumentaries run the airwaves because they have hyped up drama, says Delan. They are paced to todays pacing and they save a lot of money for the networks to put them on. But they are not documentary, they are a whole different creature.
Now, theres literally going to be a show pitting animals versus people. Its called Man Versus Beast coming up a little while on Fox.
The thing that caught my eye was midgets would be in some sort of a tug of war competition with an elephant, says Buckman.
Theres also another show, Westminster Kennel Club, one of the most popular shows on television, cable and network, they are going to do a dog beauty pageant.
Its kind of like a dog show, but I think that these dogs are being judged on other aspects. How well they are primped and beribboned and combed and groomed, says Buckman.
When you hear this stuff, its not exactly Masterpiece Theater. Its not exactly I, Claudius or Upstairs, Downstairs. How does Delan feel about it?
We have to realize that were not going to be the blockbusters, Delan says of his projects. But we do all with our programs. But they have to stay true to their knitting. We cant compete with the animals versus humans, he says.
Delan recounts that years ago, the producers who made The Real World came to him at another network.
The meeting was going fine until they said that they were the direct descendants and proud to say they were the next step in American Family. That is when I did my John Kennedy speech, which is You are no American Family. I was actually close to throwing them out of my office.
If they are the monsters who came off the embalming table to lurch through the village, he could be considered the Dr. Frankenstein that created them.
Well, Ill tell you, you cant be responsible for all your children. I say that as a parent, says Delan.
JWR contributor Jerry Nachman is vice president and editor-in-chief of MSNBC, and the host of Nachman, which airs at 5 p.m. ET, weekdays on MSNBC. A former radio reporter, newspaper Editor-in-Chief, and even Hollywood screenwriter, he is the recipient of the prestigious Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association and an Emmy Award, plus numerous others. He has served twice as a Pulitzer Prize Juror in the Journalism competition. Comment by clicking here.
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