What did we call dysfunction before we knew the word? Being screwed up, perhaps. Being human. Psychological dysfunction — what the dictionary defines as ”impaired or abnormal functioning,” and what we define as ”Roseanne’s childhood” — is the oldest condition in the book. And as such, it’s the oldest audience-grabber, too: What’s more compelling or pleasurably voyeuristic than entertainment based on flawed human beings locked in frustrated miscommunication? Watching people with problems deal miserably with each other reassures us that our own lives are not so bad (at least not as bad as Jo Reynolds’ on Melrose Place) and puts our own petty yammerings in perspective.
But dysfunction as entertainment is enjoying a heyday not seen since Caligula ran the show in Rome and appointed a horse to the Senate. Now Bill Clinton runs the show in Washington, D.C. — a President who proudly confesses his own and his family’s shortcomings with a candor (and compulsiveness) never before seen in a White House occupant. (The Kennedy family may have been a dynasty of dysfunction, and JFK may have been a voracious womanizer, but at the time the press didn’t ask, and the Kennedys certainly didn’t tell.) Now the press asks, and Clinton readily talks. Now, indeed, everybody asks, tells, publishes, and broadcasts. Talk shows sprout like dandelions, cheap and hard to weed out. Tell-all biographies and autobiographies flourish like mushrooms, moist and dank (here’s Elizabeth Taylor, Pamela Harriman, Robin Quivers!). As a result, nobody is flustered by a microphone; everybody can give a sound bite. The jargon of pop psychology has given us a new common language: We’re ”codependent” and we’re ”in recovery.” We’re Absolutely Fabulous!
On TV, the four friends on Seinfeld celebrate a festival of bad romantic relationships every week. On the CD player, Beck sings, ”I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me.” At the movies, we watch stories of frustrated women (Dolores Claiborne) and wife-beating men (Once Were Warriors), junkie teenage boys (The Basketball Diaries) and manic-depressive teenage girls (Mad Love), sexually abused students (The Boys of St. Vincent) and sexually tormented clergymen (Priest). And then there’s Crumb.
Dysfunction will never cease to fascinate us — not while we’re sitting at home interacting with unseen humans on computers while watching imaginary humans on TV, unsure how we fit in with the world. But it’s worth remembering that two of the most popular series — Roseanne and The Simpsons — feature families that are anything but screwed up. The Conners and the Simpsons are often confrontational and boorish, true, and they frequently hurt and disappoint one another. But they communicate. They’re worth considering as role models for anyone who’s not, you know, in denial about this whole dysfunctional overload.