”Everybody in the ’90s comes from a dysfunctional family. The only happy families are in syndication.” Thus spake Pacey Witter, one of the wise-beyond-their-years teens on The WB’s late-’90s zeitgeist hit Dawson’s Creek. Out of the mouth of this babe came a fitting epitaph for an entire TV era — the Dysfunctional Decade (DD).
The transition began in the late ’80s, as the cuddly Cosby clan gave way to the more fractious familial units of Married…With Children, The Simpsons, and Roseanne. With her childhood-abuse allegations and multiple personalities, Roseanne became the DD’s first poster girl. Even her name was dysfunctional — Roseanne Barr became Roseanne Arnold, which became just plain Roseanne.
Rather than a source of solace, the TV family was now a burden to bear. Think of Seinfeld’s squabbling Costanzas or Everybody Loves Raymond’s rambunctious Barones. Genuine love and support, sitcoms told us, come only from your Friends (and its many singles-in-the-city imitators).
Families disappeared on dramas. Brandon’s sister and parents moved away from Beverly Hills 90210, the Party of Five kids were already orphans, and The X-Files’ Fox Mulder lost his sole sib to aliens. Instead, hour-long ensembles were composed of cops (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street), lawyers (Ally McBeal, The Practice), and doctors (ER, Chicago Hope). These people’s personal lives may have been a mess — NYPD’s Sipowicz is a recovering drunk, Ally is a spindly bundle of neuroses — but they found warmth at the hearth of the workplace.
And the talk shows — talk about dysfunction! Oprah Winfrey and her myriad wannabes paraded the pain of America’s families across the small screen. When Oprah lost her stomach for exploitation and went all up-with-people on us, Jerry Springer filled the freak-show void.
Even the TV news couldn’t avoid getting caught up in the DD. The Menendez brothers’ ma-and-patricide served as the opening act for the O.J. trial, which introduced another set of dysfunctional Simpsons. And what adjective would you use to describe a First Family in which the father commits adultery with an underling not much older than his daughter, and his wife stands by him?
Of course, TV simply reflects society. And, in this case, TV also reflects how society watches TV. With hundreds of cable options, and 2.4 TVs in the average American home, families no longer gather in front of one set to watch the same show. Even the Cleavers’ TV tastes would fracture in the DD: Ward would tune in to ESPN, June to Lifetime, Wally to Comedy Central, and Beaver to Nickelodeon. As for Eddie Haskell, he’d probably be watching Dawson’s Creek.
May 21, 1990
”I still hear about it all the time,” says Bob Newhart of his CBS sitcom’s quintessential finale: His Vermont innkeeper wakes up next to Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette, his Bob Newhart Show wife) and realizes his life as hotelier Dick Loudon had all been a bad dream. Adds Newhart: ”People were alone in their hotel rooms, yelling at the TV ‘Yes, yes, yes!”’ Rank 32
THE SIMPSONS: ”BART GETS AN F”
Oct. 11, 1990
Trying to isolate the definitive episode of The Simpsons is a bit like trying to settle on the best McGwire blast: There are just so many brilliant Homers to choose from. But the first show of the second season stands as classic irreverent family TV — punky Bart is failing history but finally redeems himself with a…D-minus, which Homer proudly displays on the fridge. This episode also marked the first time the upstart Fox sitcom faced the top-ranked Cosby Show, and — in a move presaging the passing of the baton from ’80s family function to ’90s dysfunction — it immediately took a chunk out of the NBC champ. ”That was when we started figuring out what we were doing,” recalls Simpsons creator Matt Groening. ”I thought, Okay, we’re going to be around for a while.” Ten seasons and counting. Rank 31