Saturday, 6 October 2007

Television ate my family (1973)

I've just unearthed this extraordinary documentary series, An American Family, which first aired on PBS in 1973. It chronicles the slow dissolution of a Californian family, who, on the surface of things, seem to be a model of a conventional, affuent nuclear family. It's an absolutely fascinating portrayal of a family going through a tectonic social and cultural shift in the norms and mores of American society. Jeffrey Rouff has written a book about it in which he argues that the series marked the beginning of a distinctive new phase in social representation on television, drawing not only on the intimate, handheld camera style of the independent documentary movement, but also on the conventions of soap opera. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, with whom the producer of the series had worked on a documentary series in the 1960s, declared that this approach was "as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves."

This blurring of public and private lives created instant notoriety for the protagonists, who included the 20-year old Lance Loud, one of the first openly gay men to talk frankly about his life on mainstream television. The backdrop to the series is Nixon's America of 1971, in a post 1960s hangover where progress and affluence still seems to be unquestioned but uncomfortable questions about the family, about gender roles, about work and about the authenticity of everyday relationships are hanging in the air like heavy storm clouds on the Californian horizon. The family become kind of 'everyman' figures, cyphers and symbols for the social changes sweeping through the world of the American television audience. In this sense it could be argued that the series held up an uncomfortable mirror to the face of white middle class America. Members of the family subsequently claimed that the presence of the cameras, and the subtle influence of Craig Gilbert, the show's producer/director, led them to dramatise their lives more spectacularly than perhaps they would have done if left alone.

Lots more footage here and on YouTube. But a proper DVD release of the series would be a really good idea. It's clearly one of the defining pieces of work of US TV of the decade, and foreshadows so much else that we have now come to understand as 'reality TV'.

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