HBO revisits the story of reality TV's first family

HBO's Cinema Verite revisits the clan who would launch a craze by letting cameras into their homes for the seminal 1973 show An American Family.

Once upon a time, it was actually considered gauche to allow cameras into your home to broadcast the details of your personal life. And it was downright scandalous to ask for a divorce, or to allow your openly gay son to act, well, openly gay. It sounds quaint, but that's the world the California clan the Louds were thrust into when they signed on for the PBS docuseries An American Family, making them the country's first reality TV stars.

Now HBO is revisiting their story with the perspective that four decades of increasingly exhibitionist culture afford. Cinema Verite (April 23, 9 p.m.) offers a meta-take on how the show affected its stars, featuring Diane Lane as steely matriarch Pat Loud; Tim Robbins as her philandering husband, Bill; James Gandolfini as conflicted show creator Craig Gilbert; and Thomas Dekker as the eldest of the five Loud children, Lance, who would become a gay icon for his unapologetic "portrayal." The series was, as Lane says, "the first domino in a medium that we're experiencing whether we like it or not now."

With 10 years of reality-soaked airwaves behind us, Cinema Verite directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini saw the Louds as the perfect lens through which to explore the theme of fiction-versus-non in a very 2011 way. "Lance Loud had a famous quote: ‘Television ate my family,"' Pulcini says. "Now, reality has eaten television." Adds Berman, "It's crazy that not that long ago the mindset was so different. The Louds were unfairly attacked at the time for just being open on television."

In truth, the 12-episode series portrayed the times as they were, instead of the candy-coated version seen on The Partridge Family. You certainly weren't likely to find many openly gay sons or mothers demanding a divorce on TV at the time. But the negative attention that followed wore on the family as well as Gilbert — portrayed in Verite as having a flirtation with Pat (which Gilbert himself has denied) as well as promoting an on-camera breakup between the Louds. Berman, Pulcini, and scriptwriter David Seltzer pored over piles of research — from An American Family itself to Pat Loud's 1974 memoir — to cobble together a version that they hope comes close to reality. "This thing happened 40 years ago," Pulcini says, "and yet the wounds are so fresh, and there are a lot of conflicting stories about how it went down."

Though the Loud family declined to be involved in the production, they do, in a sense, appear in the film — clips of the original series play alongside re-created scenes. "I was so thrilled we got the footage, because if you didn't see it, you wouldn't understand what the hell I was doing," says Dekker, who pulls off an eerily accurate imitation of Lance's penchant for hair flipping and his unique voice ("a cross between Judy Garland and a crackhead," Dekker says). The family members also had advocates, of sorts, on the set, as the actors became so close to their characters that they stuck up for their conflicting points of view. "I felt very protective because I know we're raising the Titanic for this family," Lane explains. "Maybe they'll feel vindicated by what we've done with this. I hope so."

What Happened to the Louds?

Bill remarried in 1976 but later divorced; he and Pat now live together in L.A. Lance made headlines once again when he died of complications related to HIV in 2001 at age 50. Filmmaker Craig Gilbert left the business not long after An American Family, though he's credited with inventing reality TV.