["An American Family" producer Craig Gilbert] had the idea that the documentary form could represent Americans to themselves in an entirely new fashion.
Andreas Killen teaches history at City College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He's written about 'An American Family' in his book '1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.' He is currently working on a book about the 1950s.
Set the scene for us. What is going on in 1973 America?
Quite a lot. The big domestic drama of the period is the beginning of the Watergate scandal, whose first hearings aired around the same time of the premiere of 'An American Family.' There's also the ending of the war in Vietnam and the OPEC oil embargo after the Yom Kippur war. It was really the beginning of the culture wars with the decision in Roe v. Wade and other battles being waged around pornography and gay rights. It was a very turbulent and, in some ways, exciting period.
Was the timing of 'An American Family' and Watergate coincidental or is there something about both of them that speaks to the era?
There was a convergence in the sense that this was an era when traditional figures of authority and conventional narratives in society were being reexamined and torn down. This was true as much in the White House as it was on the home front.
What do you think Craig Gilbert's aim was in making the series?
My understanding is that his marriage had broken up, he was depressed, and he had a sense that the institution of the family was in decline. He wanted to examine and anthropologically document its passing. He also had the idea that the documentary form could represent Americans to themselves in an entirely new fashion.