DAVID BIANCULLI

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Won't Someone Please Enact a Lemmings Law?
July 6, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
 
an-american-family-louds.jpg

[Did PBS's An American Family, in one generation, and CBS's Survivor, in another, lead us all, like lemmings, over a cliff from which there is no return? TVWW contributor Tom Brinkmoeller asks the question -- and connects the dots... -- DB]

Several thoughts on being the first lemming into the abyss:

an-american-family-pat-loud.jpg

PBS retrieves, in a shorter form, a 1973 sensation of sorts July 7 (8 p.m. ET, check local listings) when it condenses into two hours the original 12-hour An American Family. This series opened a door that seemingly can't be shut again, by putting cameras inside the lives of a California family for seven months and disclosing lots of things no one really wanted to know. It seemed.

Pat and Bill Loud and their five children -- the hosting family -- were at neither the Ozzie and Harriet nor the Ralph and Alice Kramden ends of the television-family spectrum at the time. Tame and boring by today's "watch us brawl" reality programs, the Louds were the first family to invite television viewers not just to peek in their windows, but to pull up a porch chair and watch just about anything going on inside. To a generation brought up on a "what will the neighbors think" mentality, An American Family was a giant push of the envelope.

One of the few similarities that can be seen in this program and the housewives, hoarders, confronters and many other "welcome to my dysfunctional life" series that exist today is the complaint of those filmed that edits made situations appear negatively different than they really were.

Watch it as a history lesson, or as an early textbook on the malfunctioning American family. But this kind of sociological video voyeurism has morphed into so many more ghastly shapes and sizes in the four decades since it appeared, don't expect anything shocking. For those whose pulses are quickened by the seemingly borderless ranges of today's reality shows, a pot of strong coffee and a No-Doz or two is recommended.

* * *

One more What TV Hath Wrought reflection about a lemming-like event:

survivor-hatch.jpg

Eleven years ago, when Survivor premiered on CBS, I feel safe in saying I wasn't the only one watching who expected to see a competition played out in a civilized way, moderated by rules -- somewhat the same way organized sports competitions are presented.

But conniving, alliances, deceit and in-your-face hostility took over quickly in the run for the prize money. Forget rules, sportsmanship and civility. This program quickly became the reflection of the work world many of us turned to television to escape from.

The underhanded, unprincipled, cannibalistic practices that for many years characterized a going-to-work experience had now invaded our homes. And the worst part of this was: it was accepted. Incivility was the tool, the series told us, for getting what you had to have.

That the first winner in this battle of the boors, Richard Hatch, took the winning money and ended up in prison because of tax-evasion issues even more mirrored the business life many of us found foul and "Enron-ish."

Endless imitators have followed Survivor off this precipice since -- to the point that watching people abandon personal principles in the chase for cash is now a TV staple hardly anyone challenges.

So the Louds opened the door to today's acceptance of acting out in public and a shallow, silly series about tribal councils and unholy alliances placed a seal of approval at winning at any cost.

See any parallels to what these lemmings did and how life is lived today -- inside and outside the TV set?

 

2 Comments

 

Neil said:

Once upon a time, Walt Kelly (through his comic strip character Pogo) said that "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Neither of these programs could have succeeded if they didn't fill some cavity in our collective sweet tooth for gossip, deviousness, deviancy and self-immolation. None of the current crop of crap "reality" programming could either.

The genie came out of the bottle not when some "elite" (a CBS or PBS programming executive) greenlighted these shows, but when an audience found them and stayed. TV history, distant and recent, is replete with programs that quickly vanished into the ether when not enough eyeballs stuck around.

As William Shakespeare wrote a few hundred years ago, and Edward R. Murrow so elegantly quoted a few hundred years later, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves".

Comment posted on July 7, 2011 2:01 PM


Tom Brinkmoeller said:

Neil,

I don't argue with anything you wrote. I only comment for less-than-constructive addictions to exist there must be a dealer to open the market and junkies willing to try a new narcotic.

Speaking as a former junkie of sorts, it was much easier to keep smoking cigarettes than it was to stop. Having experienced smoking and all its effects, I'd never go back -- even though plenty of stores would happily sell me some.

Comment posted on July 8, 2011 9:53 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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