Though we may discuss the dirty details more graphically than ever in the ’90s, there’s nothing new about looking to twisted families and their troubled offspring for entertainment. Historical high points from the dawn of civilization to the age of R. Crumb:
The Old Testament
Cain slays his brother. Lot sleeps with his daughters. Joseph’s siblings sell him into slavery. It’s a wonder ”family values” advocates let their kids read this book.
The Greek Tragedies
What a field day Jenny Jones could have had with Oedipus (”I’m in Love With My Mother!”), Electra (”I’m in Love With My Father!”), and Medea (”I Killed My Children!”).
With his dad’s murderer for a stepfather, this Dane couldn’t even cure his melancholy with Prozac.
The Glass Menagerie (1945)
Tennessee Williams became famous for airing his family’s soiled laundry — anomie, alienation, tacky tchotchkes — on Broadway.
The Guiding Light (1952)
Extramarital affairs, unwed motherhood, and other domestic deviations found a home on TV with the premiere of this soap.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
As the son of a weak father and a castrating mother, James Dean made tortured delinquency trendy.
The granddaddy of tabloid TV talk shows premiered nationwide, offering America a public venue for dishing the family dirt.
An American Family (1973)
Son Lance came out; parents Bill and Pat broke up. The PBS documentary offered a real-life chronicle of a family’s disintegration, as well as a new definition of ”normal.”
The Death of Elvis (1977)
Drugs and bizarre dietary habits had killed rock stars before, but the King’s vices were the first to have resulted, some theorized, from excessive mother love.
Mommie Dearest (1978)
Daughter Christina’s memoir outraged Joan Crawford’s fans, shattered the myth that movie-star families were havens of bliss, and revealed a new use for wire hangers.
The Michael Jackson Scandals
Since the early ’80s, it’s been one thing after another: plastic surgery; sister La Toya’s claim that she and Mike were abused as kids; allegations (settled out of court in 1994) that he’d molested kids himself. Who better to marry than Elvis’ daughter?
Married…With Children (1987)
Fox’s breakthrough hit premiered — and proved dysfunctional families could also be funny.
Her autobiography My Lives claimed that she was not only an incest victim — which her family denied — and ex-drug user, but a former prostitute with a multiple-personality disorder.
His grunge revolution made self-loathing a pop rage. But Cobain’s angst, triggered, he said, by his parents’ nasty divorce, was for real — as his 1994 suicide proved.
The O.J. Simpson Trial (1995)
Okay, maybe this doesn’t quite qualify as entertainment. But, oy, what an unhappy family! And doesn’t it make you feel a whole lot better about yours?