August 14, 2014 3:04 PM EDT

Before reality TV involved writers, immunity challenges and Paris Hilton, there was the Loud family. A public-television crew spent hundreds of hours in 1971 with a “typical” California family that proved to be anything but. Midway through the twelve-hour cinema-verite series, paterfamilias and executive Bill Loud and wife Pat decided to split up. Their son Lance was casually introduced into the gay social scene of Greenwich Village, in what would remain one of the most matter-of-fact treatments of a homosexual TV “character” for decades. The series raised what seem like—in the Big Brother and MySpace era—quaint questions about how videotaping reality alters reality itself. But ethically justifiable or not, it remains one of the greatest documents of American life, American media and the steadily vanishing distinctions between the two.

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