James Gandolfini watches Real Housewives, and other insight from the cast of HBO’s An American Family movie

In a few months, HBO will once again fictionalize the creation of a famous work of nonfiction, although this time it’s the reality series that started it all: An American Family. The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini stars as Craig Gilbert, the producer who followed the Loud family for the 1973 PBS series, while Pat and Bill Loud are played by Diane Lane and Tim Robbins, while Thomas Dekker plays their gay son Lance Loud.

Robbins and Lane, along with the film’s directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, talked to TV critics Friday, and it was an occasion for some reality TV bashing on the part of some critics who simultaneously demonstrated their ignorance about the original series, but also yielded some surprising insight.

First, James Gandolfini said that The Real Housewives of Atlanta is “extraordinary”: “I have seen Housewives of Atlanta. That was extraordinary. It really was.” But when he got the inevitable Jersey Shore question, he just shook his head and said, “No, no, no.”

He also said that, now, the genre has “turned to shit” because “the entire thing of An American Family had good intentions. It started with somebody who wanted to document the family in the ’70s, an intellectual exercise. … I think it was an extraordinary thing, and it did document a family in the ’70s. It’s pretty exceptional.”

While Diane Lane had a predictable dismissal of the genre (she called “reality show” “an oxymoron”), she also had some of the most astute and interesting analysis. “How do you take 390 something hours of film and edit it down to 12 without an agenda? I mean, I think I felt for Craig Gilbert’s dilemma as well as Pat’s as well as every member of the family. You can’t help but have great compassion for the real people and what they went through,” she said.

Lane also pointed out that viewers were shocked by more than just the content because they’d never seen the format before. “There was no way for the psyche of America to process what they were seeing. They held the family accountable for the editing that was done,” she said, adding later that the HBO film “tackles the first domino that fell. … The virgins thrown into the volcano, did they jump? And were they pushed?”

Referring to Pat Loud’s memoir, in which she told her side of the story, Lane said that “she still wants to know why she did it herself because if she could undo it, she would have, but she can only be innocent once, and that was what drew everybody’s amazement, shock, and disdain because you can’t get your innocence back and America was angry.”

Asked about why people sign up to be followed by camera crews today, Tim Robbins said, “Maybe the question is why do so many people want to see people at their weakest moments? I mean, it makes for good television when there’s a train wreck, doesn’t it, on those reality shows? So the question really is a question for all of us to consider, is why are we drawn towards that disaster, you know? If there’s a divorce or if there’s an argument on a reality show or two friends are furious at each other, it tends to increase ratings. So it’s kind of a deeper question about the whole society: Why are we drawn to the train wreck?”

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.