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HBO looks back at birth of reality TV

The world changed on Jan. 11, 1973. We just didn't know it yet.

That is the date PBS first began broadcasting its 12-part documentary miniseries "An American Family." It's the date reality TV was born, and it would eventually give us the Osbourne family throwing garbage over their neighbors' fence, self-described "guidos" drunkenly slugging the opposite sex at the Jersey shore and the "real" housewives of major American cities competing to see who can act more wretched.

It's also the date American TV -- and really American public life -- had its first openly gay young man to follow in "life," a fellow named Lance Loud, who took his slow-on-the-uptake mom to drag shows and tied his shirttails at the bottom so he could bare his midriff.

One of the best TV ideas of this year, an HBO film about the creation of "An American Family," hits the premium cable network at 9 p.m. Saturday, when "Cinema Verite" begins the first of many showings on HBO and HBO2 that will extend all the way through May.

If you get HBO -- especially on digital cable -- it will take some effort to miss the thing, and I wouldn't advise it.

That's despite an opening 30 minutes that seems to be a faithful rendering of the stunning, materialistic banality of the Loud family we were first asked to study on TV, as if we were all Margaret Meads (her books, we're told, were the inspiration for the series).

Diane Lane plays Pat Loud, the Santa Barbara "housewife" who wound up asking her cheating husband for a divorce on camera. Tim Robbins plays her husband, Bill.

If I'd been an HBO executive, I might have asked Robbins to direct instead, as ultimately good a job as ex-documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini do.

But that beginning is not the whole story the directors and screenwriter David Seltzer were telling. Thank heaven for that.

Obviously, it attempts to show us what the Louds were like off-camera as well as on, even if that begins by seeming equally banal. Not so obviously, it tells us about the show's producer/creator, Craig Gilbert, and how he talked the family into it but couldn't talk his own onsite film crew -- future Oscar-winning documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond -- into filming everything he wanted to show in the series.

That friction winds up in "Cinema Verite" with a punch thrown at Gilbert by Alan Raymond, which both Raymond and Gilbert denied to be "verite" to writer Laurie Winer in her fine story in the current issue of the New Yorker.

No matter. Because that is where the excitement of "Cinema Verite" begins to be palpable. Once it becomes genuinely complex and begins investigating unavoidable questions about the ethics of pretending to film people's "real" lives 2 4/7 (not to mention how little "verite" is involved and how very much conventional "cinema"), "Cinema Verite" becomes one of the better films of any sort you're liable to see on premium cable this year.

Playing Craig Gilbert, the producer of the original "An American Family," is James Gandolfini, who, at long last, has a terrific role in a movie where he doesn't play Tony Soprano.

He is, by miles, the most interesting character in "Cinema Verite."

In Winer's New Yorker piece, we're told that Gilbert, now 85 and sickly, has lived "in a one-bedroom apartment on Jane Street [in the West Village] for 21 years Gilbert never worked again after 'An American Family' aired, and he has spent the years since then trying to avoid the notoriety that came with his creation."

And if that isn't a great HBO movie waiting to be made, I don't know what is.

But this film is mostly Bill and Pat, Pat and Bill. And they also aren't a fraction as interesting as Lance Loud, the favorite older son who liked to live in New York's Chelsea Hotel and go to Paris, so that he could lie across the piano and sing Marlene Dietrich songs.

Granted, the show was preceded by the film of Mart Crowley's play "The Boys in the Band," but Lance Loud, the first openly gay "real" man on American TV, was the flamboyant fellow who opened the door to stereotypical characters all over American sitcoms and cable. He ended up finding refuge in the cultural family of Andy Warhol's "factory."

"Cinema Verite" turns into quite a powerful film when it's able to air the complexities and implications of a story that TV originally left out.

Which sets up one of those written postcripts that have been a convention for American movies since "American Graffiti" in which we learn the subsequent fate of every major character on the show, Pat and Bill Loud, their five children, Craig Gilbert, and Alan and Susan Raymond.

Everyone, that is, except the most important character of all -- the American television watcher, who saw, in 12 parts on PBS, the coming of a new monster into the electronic world. And now that its hour has come around at last in the 21st century, what so many of us really want to know is this: What DO those people think about the hairy behemoth creature they gave to TV programming everywhere?

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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