The Big Bang of Reality TV

Portrait of Diane Lane. Art Streiber for Newsweek

When the PBS documentary series 'An American Family' aired in 1973, actress Diane Lane was only 8 years old, too young to understand the seismic shift that the show caused in the nation’s psyche.

Now, at 46, Lane recognizes that the show held up a mirror to viewers’ own imperfections. “It was a huge awakening for all of us,” says the actress, now playing the mother of the first family that got burned for being itself on television.

The Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., let a film crew record their daily life. More than 300 hours of film were culled into 12 episodes. That footage exploded perceptions of middle-class America when it aired. Viewers watched the Louds’ marriage fall apart and their son Lance come out as gay. For their trouble, the family was vilified by viewers and critics alike. NEWSWEEK put them on its cover under the headline “The Broken Family.”

In Cinema Verite, HBO’s dramatized behind-the-scenes account, the Oscar-nominated Lane plays matriarch Pat Loud, who allowed documentarian Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) to film her family’s every moment, even as the cracks in her marriage to Bill (Tim Robbins) widened. The Louds, forerunners for the now ubiquitous Osbournes and Kardashians, may seem hopelessly twee compared to today’s reality TV escapades, but there’s still something heartbreaking about seeing their “perfect” family dissolve on screen. The result is a fascinating, well-acted rendition of the original big bang of reality TV, when the Louds—and America—lost their innocence.

“The [Louds] didn’t know that they were going to get burned in the town square … for being themselves,” Lane says. “That we’re so unforgiving is the big discovery here.”

Lane avoids reality shows. “To watch someone take their one precious life and devalue it … I feel like a participant in the crime they’re committing upon themselves.” The actress is no stranger to living in the public eye, having landed on the cover of Time at 14 as one of the so-called “whiz kids” of Hollywood. And while she acted professionally for 30 years, she shuns the spotlight. “I crave my privacy,” she says. “I’m fine with being draconian in my lack of willingness to go there.”