My fascination with nonfiction television goes back to 1973 when PBS aired the groundbreaking An American Family, a 12-part documentary that followed the fracturing of a middle-class California family.
The series pioneered reality television, introduced TV's first openly gay character (son Lance Loud, who died in 2001) and was named by TV Guide as one of the 50 greatest TV shows of all time. And it has never been re-aired or released on DVD.
Fortunately, other superior documentary-style reality series that faded into obscurity are available on DVD, and worth seeing if you missed their original broadcast. Here are five of the best:
Country Boys. David Sutherland's six-part PBS Frontline documentary stays with you long after the credits roll. Filmed in eastern Kentucky over three years it follows the lives of two Appalachian high school students with nothing going for them but hope. Chris lives in a trailer and assumes the adult role in his family, which is crippled by an alcoholic father. Cody was left an orphan after his father killed his stepmother, then himself. Although Cody's struggle would seem insurmountable, he finds stability in his girlfriend's middle-class family and his Christian/rocker faith. It's Chris, a promising student who sabotages his successes, who provides the series' emotional roller coaster.
The Farmer's Wife. Also directed by Sutherland, the documentary chronicles the struggle of Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter as they try to hold on to their family farm in Nebraska. Over three years of filming we watch their marriage tested and their finances worsen, as both work second backbreaking jobs -- Darrel at a steel mill and Juanita cleaning houses. While the documentary covers the same ground as other farms-in-crisis features, it's also a profile of a young relationship threatened not only by the trials of running a failing farm, but by Juanita's growing independence. Their story is so compelling you'll want to know what happened to the couple after the filming ended. PBS's web site offers an update.
The Staircase. Just when it seemed true-crime stories were reaching saturation, this riveting eight-episode series -- part mystery, part courtroom drama -- proved otherwise. Filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade follows the trial of novelist Michael Peterson, accused of killing his high-powered wife by pushing her down the stairs. Unlike Dateline NBC, which wraps up its stories in an hour, this one has the luxury of time. The cameras peer in on Peterson's legal team as it maps its defense, and peels back Peterson's strange story one curious layer at a time.
Frontier House. More reality show than documentary series, PBS calls this a "docu-soap" for good reason. Part of the time-travel House franchise, it follows three modern-day families as they try to become homesteaders in Montana just as their forebears did. History buffs will like the 1800s authenticity (no toilet paper!), and others will be absorbed by the mental and emotional toll the hardships took on the cast. We watch the neighbors squabble over turf, and one couple's marriage nearly dissolve as the harsh conditions make her more controlling and him more defeated.
Texas Ranch House. Loyal House watchers hated this series, complaining that it traded educational value for Real World-style conflict. On the contrary, the infighting between a wealthy landowner, his manipulative wife and their mutinous ranch hands gave lots of lessons about leadership and inequality. Tension builds as the henpecked landowner becomes more imperious and the workers, who seem to forget they are in a TV series, get angrier.
Shirleen Holt is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor living outside Portland, Ore.