The Original Reality TV: 'An American Family'

The Original Reality TV: 'An American Family'

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this is the original reality TV angst-fest. 

By Sanjena Sathian

I am hopelessly addicted to reality television — and here’s why. It’s the confessional camera. It’s the way you get to stare straight into someone’s eyes and watch them give an elevator pitch for their own lives; the way they speak to the camera teaches me about how people curate their personalities. Yes, watching reality television necessarily means gorging yourself on falsehoods — but every once in a while, a flash of something real and human bleeds out in front of that camera.

In the early days of reality television, though — before the confessional camera — you didn’t need to comb through hours of staged fights to find the humanity. All you needed was a windowpane into someone’s less-than-idyllic living room.

Who says the millenials are the angst-iest generation? They did youthful ennui pretty damn well in the 1970s, too.

A reminder of that? A brief jaunt back to the “original reality TV show,” An American Family, which centered on the Loud family of 35 Woodale Lane, Santa Barbara, California. They were your average upper-middle-class Americans. They raised their kids, they struggled with family problems, their son came out to them and the parents got a divorce. Filmed in 1971 and aired in 1973, the show marked the emergence of a new genre “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel,” to quote anthropologist Margaret Mead. In fact, the creators of MTV’s The Real World claimed Family as their original inspiration.

Though Family was about the nuclear family, some of its best moments could actually give the angsty youth of The Real World, The Bachelor and other reality shows a run for their money. Toast to that by celebrating the late Lance Loud, one of the first openly gay teens to grace American TV sets, who died at a young age of AIDS. Millennials, this is for you: Who says we’re the angst-iest generation? They did youthful ennui pretty damn well in the 1970s, too.

It’s like novelist what Dave Eggers told the folks at MTV when he was auditioning for The Real World in the early 1990s. “I want everyone to witness my youth,” he told them, simply. “Why?” they asked. He replied: “Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Yes, it is.