Pat Loud, Cinema Verite and the Birth of Reality Television

Last night, HBO premiered a movie about the 1973 reality series that set the mold for a culture that is now comfortably uncomfortable living in public

I remember the Loud family from my social studies book in high school. They were a paragraph, and a photo and something significant that happened in American society, but I wasn’t sure what.

Last night, HBO premiered a movie about the 1973 reality series that set the mold for a culture that is now comfortably uncomfortable living in public, with cameras everpresent and a hyper-awareness of self considered normal.

How to Get Famous and Be Careful What You Wish For debuted on public television nearly 40 years ago, and riveted American society.  At the time, documentarian Craig Gilbert (played by James Gandolfini) sought to record the real-life experiences of an average American family in a 10-part series. 

Since then, we’ve reaped the whirlwind, with average people and even once-famous onces willing to do anything to live their lives on TV. 

The Louds were at the premiere, flesh-and-blood people from out of my social studies book. Pat Loud, 84, sat tall and beautiful with stark white hair to her shoulders that was once dark brown. Bill Loud, the philandering strip mine salesman now in his 90s, sat nearby with a cane. They looked happy; friends and kids were around them. The couple divorced in the course of the 10-part PBS series. Now they live together. Life is funny, and time takes its time.

The Louds were an educated, upscale family in Santa Barbara with five kids and the kind of genteel dysfunction that marked the 1970s and most of the decades since: suburban ennui, women’s identity, divorce just beneath the surface, teen angst, homosexuality (the latter being the story of Lance, who later died of complications from HIV).

The movie is a welcome glimpse at what happened when we as a society first let cameras into our bedrooms. It’s also an insightful peek at how filmmakers and journalists slowly eroded the accepted boundaries of discretion as we went for drama over truth. Now franken-byting has created an entire industry of reality television and made a star of Snooki.

The center of the movie is Diane Lane, who as Pat Loud is the stay-at-home mom , overeducated and uneasy as the wife of a travelling businessman and, ultimately, anchor of the family. She is open-eyed about participating in this social experiment; but Loud also pays a personal price for the process, which leads to the unravelling of her home life.

Last night, Diane Lane said she met the real Pat Loud just an hour before the premiere. (HBO had to do some convicing to get the family to come.) She must have been impressed to meet what some might say was the first television reality show star.

The show debuts on April 23.