Viewers who tuned in to PBS' "An American Family" in early 1973 bore witness to a piece of television history: the first "reality" series that featured TV's first gay character as well as a marriage on the rocks.
Now, nearly 40 years later, PBS revisits the Loud family, a "neither average nor typical" middle-class clan in Santa Barbara, Calif., in "An American Family: Anniversary Edition," a two-hour condensation of the original 12-part, 12-hour series, airing Thursday, July 7 (check local listings).
The series, which had sequels in 1983 and 2001, plus HBO's recent docudrama "Cinema Verite," followed the Louds through their day-to-day lives in 1971, focusing on patriarch Bill, a traveling businessman; stay-at-home mom Pat; and their teenage children, Delilah, Grant, Michele, Kevin and Lance. Over the course of the 12 episodes, viewers were treated to the mundane (dance recitals, business meetings), the not so mundane (booze-soaked parties, Lance's life as a homosexual in a seedy New York hotel), the near-tragic (a wildfire that nearly consumed the family's home) and the sad (the infidelity-induced dissolution of Pat and Bill's marriage).
Forty years later, filmmaker Susan Raymond, who with husband Alan shot the original footage and re-edited it for this special, looks back in astonishment that a couple who knew their marriage was in trouble -- Pat knew of her husband's philandering two years before the series was filmed -- would allow it to be put under a microscope for all the world to see.
"Absolutely amazed. I can't believe it," she says. "This is guessing on my part. Even if they decided that they were flattered to be chosen and that they were going to go along with it, it doesn't make any sense for Bill Loud to continue to behave in the manner that he did."
Bill and Pat divorced shortly after the series ended but eventually got back together as the dying wish of Lance, who passed away at age 50 from liver failure in 2001. The rest of the Loud offspring would carve out careers and lives for themselves.
As for the series, its legacy lives on.