Sunday, March 6, 2011

An American Family: what’s your problem?

I was at college (we called it the Un-College with a Seven-up parodied T-Shirt we wore under our cadet dress gray jackets) when PBS aired “An American Family” in 1973. It was a really weird year. Two years into my rather institutionalized military schooling, this was a time when our country was exiting from Viet Nam, slowly but surely. McGovern defeated. Nixon elected. The Loud Family revealed on TV in a very real way in a twelve part documentary.

I don’t remember seeing the first couple of installments. I wasn’t allowed a TV in my room, which was probably a good thing, but I watched this documentary in our company game room on consecutive weeks. I was away from home, missed my Mom and Dad, my brother, the neighborhood, my friends. This documentary didn’t take me back home at all. The Louds had a ton of problems. I did too, but none like these people. My problems seemed pretty insignificant, I thought at the time.

It’s unfair to use a family as some sort of touchstone relic of a time. I won’t fall into that trap. Too easy to do, but the Louds fit in well with the other loud stuff going on. Music was pretty loud, for example. I was a DJ at the radio station and we liked loud sounds. The students danced pretty hard when we played loud music at record hops. The senior cadets were loud. They barked orders a lot. My cadet company commander, who had a booming voice, became the regimental adjutant later that year. He passed his command voice interview. The war far away was pretty loud, but I just heard the sounds on the nightly news, when I could watch it.

Going to the library was a quiet refuge away from all the shouting, squeaking plebes answering questions, the distractions from the tons of homework and uniform-prep shoe-shining brass polishing, and room cleaning. Order arms, parade rest. The TV room was a good hiding place too, away from the dress gray hub-bub. We were allowed to hang out there, out of uniform.

It was surreal watching the Louds. It felt uncomfortable at first, being a fly on their wall. Weird enough, being in an institution. Weirder still feeling really removed from the reality of America, from the really loud Louds. I was definitely out-of-uniform. They seemed dysfunctional but that word wasn’t a word I used at the time. They seemed angry and upset, confused, lost. That’s probably why I liked them. I felt that way too at times. They just had it worse and they weren’t required to shine shoes and march in straight lines to Souza marching tunes. They didn’t have to go to boring football games to watch their team creamed 77-0 by the previous year’s national champions. They didn’t worry about Viet Nam too much, I gathered.

I learned to like them a lot.

In comparison to them, I was having a ball, long gray line and all. Three great meals a day, a funny room mate named Rudy, a radio station full of the latest LPs, great teachers, loud ridiculous seniors, stripes on their shoulders, no worry about what to wear. Hey, a little spit, some polish, some Brasso. No sweat. And on the weekends, we escaped to New York City, ate free at Momma Leone’s if we wore our cadet uniform. Stayed at the Essex House half-price. New York was an atmosphere where it seemed all the adults were gone. On top of all this, we got paid every month. My Mom and Dad appreciated this scholarship deal and paid off their little beach house in Avalon, NJ.

Mr. and Mrs. Loud had it pretty good but not-so-good. They broke up, broke down, four kids who seemed pretty high maintenance. I liked them though.

Today, reality TV is a full fledged, money machine, industry genre. Reality TV seems the way these days, so much so that regular sitcoms, made-up stuff, seem pretty special. When we watch reality TV, we’re less apt to feel weird. I don’t have a TV, but I feel weird without it. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not sure why TV makes me feel like I’m diving in a pool filled with logos and marketing pitch snippets, slogans that blend with the product placement suggestions in the show after the commercial. My institutional upbringing must kick in and conflict with all that somehow. Weird.

I remember the line in “An American Family”, shouted by the husband to his wife, “…what’s your problem?”. I’m not sure if that was the commercial birth of the phrase, but I remember people saying it a lot after that. You know how those TV phrases can stick into our everyday speech, right? I remember laughing to myself when one of my fellow cadets, launched into the freshman for something like scuffed shoes, wrinkled trousers, a smudged rifle muzzle at parade inspection. “Mister, what is your problem?”…usual plebe (an allowable) answer, “Sir, I do not know”. Bang ‘em together! “I can’t hear you!”

Sir, I do not know. I do not know why this documentary pulled me away from my electrical engineering homework. I do not know how I read Don Quixote while watching the Loud Family negotiate their windmills and tip a few. I do not know why the Loud children felt like friends after a few episodes. I do not know how they had the courage to let someone film them in such an intimate way. It was a weird year.

Here's a clip


From the PBS website, a retrospective summary:

"On Thursday, January 11, 1973, the first broadcast of An American Family changed television history forever. A 12-hour documentary series on PBS, An American Family chronicled seven months in the day-to-day lives of the William C. Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. An audience of ten million viewers watched in fascination the unfolding real-life drama of Bill and Pat Loud, and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele.

The series challenged conventional views of middle class American family life with its depiction of marital tensions that led to divorce, an elder son's gay lifestyle and the changing values of American families. Prior to An American Family, the staples of television family programs such as The Brady Bunch profiled a model of the perfectly happy family that seldom faced any crisis. The broadcast of An American Family in 1973 proved to be a groundbreaking watershed that forever changed American television programming and led the way to more complex family portraits such as Roseanne, One Day At A Time and even The Simpsons.

TV Guide magazine acknowledged An American Family as the first reality television series and named it among "The 50 Greatest Shows of All Time." Lance Loud, the eldest son of the family, was the first openly gay person to appear on television as an integral member of American family life. Alan and Susan Raymond, the filmmakers of the original An American Family PBS series, remained friends with the Loud family and have continued to chronicle their lives for the past 30 years. They produced and directed An American Family Revisited in 1983 and bring audiences this "final episode" of the Loud family saga."

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