Before "The Osbournes," indeed, before there was MTV, there was PBS and Lance Loud.
Thirty years ago this month, public broadcasting ushered in "An American Family," a 12-part series that chronicled seven months in the life of Santa Barbara's Loud family. At a time of many fewer TV options, their impact was loud, indeed. Some 10 million viewers tuned in each week to the groundbreaking unscripted series, which routinely out-rated its broadcast network competition; one night, in Boston, an episode drew more than 70% of those watching television.
The series -- meant as a portrait of changing American family values and not just a voyeuristic look at one situation, as many unscripted series are today -- shocked some viewers with its candid look at the breakdown of the Louds' marriage and 19-year-old Lance Loud's coming out as a gay man, a first for television. Its impact was controversial; some critics questioned whether the presence of TV cameras 12 hours a day for months caused the strained marriage to crack (the filming was done in 1971 and the series aired in 1973). Even some public broadcasting executives over the years have been ambivalent about claiming credit for it.
No more, however. Lance Loud died in December 2001 at age 50 of liver failure caused by a hepatitis C and HIV co-infection. Tonight, "An American Family" filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond return to their subject, checking in with Lance and other family members, during the last months of his life. "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family" is part portrait of a man who many viewers under 45 will be too young to remember, part cautionary tale of the aftermath of a life profoundly affected at a young age by instant celebrity brought on by intense media exposure.
PBS will follow the documentary with a rebroadcast of the second episode of the original series, which chronicles Pat Loud's visit to New York City to see her son, where she is scandalized by a transvestite theater performance they attend in bohemian Greenwich Village.
"Television ate my family," was Lance Loud's famous proclamation on the aftermath of the series. But he got something that many other subjects of unscripted TV or documentaries don't get: a chance to get the last word and set the record straight, or perhaps change it for posterity. The latest film came about when he asked the Raymonds, who had remained friends, to come back from their New York home and record one final chapter, since he knew he was dying. He wanted to show the American TV public that his was "a very strong family, not a disjointed, fractured family," Susan Raymond said. "He wanted to have a conversation both as friends and filmmakers, sorting things out about his life," she said. And he wanted to do it on camera, she said, even though it was television that had also deeply wounded the family in the first place.
In a letter to the Raymonds asking them to do the film, Loud wrote: "And for the naysayers that claimed 'American Family' revealed us to be vacant, unloving, uncaring morons of the materialistic '70s, this image will be proven wrong when Mom and Dad remarry.... Make no mistake. This is not to emphasize the sadness of my demise but rather emphasize the love of my family and friends. When my time comes up, I want to be filmed because life this past year has taught me so much. I also stand as a role model as to what not to do in one's life."
It wasn't an effort at revisionism, Alan Raymond insisted. "Lance was always his own harshest critic. He tended to have a rather sorrowful view of his life."
The Raymonds had already done a follow-up documentary in 1983 for HBO and vowed never to put the family through the experience again. They felt they couldn't refuse Lance's request, however, so they embarked on the project, all the while worrying about how the other family members would react. In the end, his parents participated, as did three of Lance's four siblings, although only Michele, seen caring for him in a hospice, made the cut in the film because of time constraints.
Viewers of the original series were particularly taken by Lance, a free spirit shown flying along on his bike, singing to music in his head, and putting on layers of makeup. While the Louds initially were "kind of naive themselves about the whole process," said Alan Raymond, Lance quickly took to this newfound spotlight. He became a gay icon and parlayed his celebrity into a semipublic career, first in a band called the Mumps, of which, Andy Warhol is seen saying in the film, "I always told him that he had the best band in town." Later, he was a writer for such magazines as Interview, American Film, Details and the Advocate.
Among the themes of the film, said Alan Raymond, is the "price of media celebrity." Loud, he said, "carried the burden of being the first openly gay person on American television, frozen at age 19, forced to forever carry that wacky gay guy persona into his mature adult life." While also a cautionary tale, Raymond said, "Lance felt it would be to a large extent self-evident that he had not been wise in his years of unsafe sex and drug abuse. We didn't want to pound you over the head with it, but he did not think of his life as a model for anyone to emulate."
The Raymonds, whose most recent work is the HBO documentary "Children in War," find it a "mixed honor" to be credited, as they often are, with the creation of modern-day reality television. "We don't do shows for MTV. I don't care to take credit for 'The Real World,' 'The Osbournes,' or [the] 'Anna Nicole [Show],' " said Alan Raymond. "They're terrible."
The couple said they prefer to look at the impact "An American Family" had on entertainment television, by showing a level of dysfunction behind the facade of the idealized American families seen in sitcoms and movies of the day.
Decades later, Susan Raymond said, many viewers continue to relate to their portrait of the Louds. "Many families have lost members to HIV and drug abuse." As for the series, she said, "it will stand for something, with more meaning and context than the game shows" that are today's reality TV. But "will someone who grew up on 'The Real World' be interested in Lance? It's a good question," said Alan Raymond.
In the end, the Louds themselves manage to grab back some privacy. The film ends, as Lance wanted, with a written epilogue stating that his parents, Pat and Bill, are now living together again, something he campaigned for. But Pat Loud refused to discuss on camera the living arrangement, which the filmmakers said is platonic, and the Raymonds were surprised she "didn't go ballistic" when the topic was included. It raises more questions than it answers, but Susan Raymond said "it's Mrs. Loud's desire to leave you hanging. That's a private matter."