Forty-five years ago — on Jan. 11, 1973 — the first reality series premiered on PBS, and television would never be the same. An American Family became an immediate pop culture sensation that was discussed by newspaper columnists, debated by television pundits and even taken seriously by respected scholars like Margaret Mead.
In a TV Guide article, the famous anthropologist declared that the show was “as new and 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.” (If only she had lived long enough to see The Jersey Shore.)
It also introduced audiences to television’s first openly gay man, Lance Loud. After growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Lance dove into New York’s downtown underground when he and his best friend Kristian Hoffman — who also appeared in An American Family — formed a band during high school and eventually moved east. The two friends frequented downtown haunts upon their arrival and later formed a punk band named the Mumps in the mid 1970s, often sharing stages with the Ramones, Blondie and Television.
Because the “reality television” format wouldn’t be established until the early 1990s, An American Family felt completely new and fresh, but it still had all the hallmarks of a typical hit television show. The Louds were an attractive, relatively privileged family bubbling with conflict just beneath the surface. The two most prominent sources of dramatic tension were Lance’s unrepressed homosexuality and the onscreen divorce of parents Pat and Bill Loud.
It is often erroneously reported that Lance “came out” on the show, but he actually never tried to hide being gay in the first place. It was fairly obvious when the cameras began rolling. Because homosexuality wasn’t something openly discussed on network television, it was the parents’ divorce that framed the overall narrative.
“The story of Pat and Bill’s failed marriage was perhaps straightforward enough in what it suggested about the problems of the contemporary family,” historian Andreas Killen wrote in his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, “but the Lance storyline opened up an altogether more complicated Pandora’s box: issues of generational conflict, sexual orientation and, not least, the medium’s claims to realism. Lance and his mother quickly emerged as the series’s central characters — hardly surprising, given that it was their actions that brought the traditional family most sharply into question.”
After Kristian met Lance in art class while attending high school in Santa Barbara, he quickly became part of the Loud’s extended family. “Whenever one of Pat’s children brings home someone, it’s her kid,” Kristian said. “So it was a real exciting to have such warm company to be allowed into.” Around 1970, the pair escaped the hippie haven of California and moved to New York, where the economy had crashed and the rents were low. An American Family, when it began shooting in 1971, filmed them there and when they returned to Santa Barbara and even on a trip to Europe. During this time, Lance and Kristian didn’t think twice about having cameras examine every part of their lives — for it was all part of their master plan.
“We were in a self-deluded dream that we were going to somehow become big rock stars or big artists like Andy Warhol, or some crazy thing,” Kristian said. “So when this opportunity came to us with An American Family, it didn’t seem unnatural at all. It just seemed like, ‘Well, life is progressing like we expected. Someone is paying attention,’ so we’re going to move forward and do something crazy. Also, we were young and thought we were the most fascinating people in the world. It didn’t really occur to us that we might not be that interesting.”
The omnipresent cameras gave Lance and Kristian a cache they hadn’t earned, literally opening doors for them (people saw the production crew and thought they must be famous). “Lance learned posture in front of the camera,” Kristian said, “and out of all of the family, I think he was the quickest learner of how to make a drama center around him.”
Lance impishly broke the frame and addressed viewers directly in a knowing way, an early televised expression of the emerging postmodern sensibility. He made fun of the conventions of documentary filmmaking and even turned the personal drama of his parent’s divorce into a meta, mediated moment. He spoke of the big breakup in a highly theatrical tone during one episode, noting that Pat and Bill Loud had been rehearsing this tragic scene for ages.
Near the end of the series, for example, Lance could also be seen camping it up when he arrived at the Santa Barbara airport in full drag. Back at the Loud family’s home, in a scene soundtracked by the Velvet Underground, the big brother gave his sisters makeup tips and paraded around in colorful clothes. Lance’s playful undermining of the codes of observational cinema certainly made for great television, and it also helped make the medium safe for irony.
Lance became the show’s breakout star — appearing with the other Louds on The Dick Cavett Show, the cover of Newsweek and in several other major media outlets in 1973. “The press response was totally bewildering because we expected it to be reviewed as a documentary, and instead they reviewed the family,” Kristian said. “The vitriol was just palpable. So that started to hurt after a while.”
Writing for The New York Times Magazine, feminist writer Anne Roiphe exemplified the mainstream critical reception — particularly her treatment of what she called “the flamboyant, leechlike, homosexuality of their oldest son, Lance.” He stirred up passionate (and often vicious) debates about homosexuality back when it was still a verboten subject on broadcast television. Lance Loud became the poster child of moral decay and camp excess, a divisive lightning rod that helped spark America’s culture wars.
“The Andy Warhol prophecy of 15 minutes of fame for any and everyone,” Lance said, “blew up on our doorstep.”
Stay tuned this year for Kembrew McLeod’s reality series debut about a university professor who is also a robot, filled with several hijinks. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 235.