As the 20th century comes to a close, the TV nation has grown into one big unhappy family

By Bruce Fretts
Updated February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

”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

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

Jan 17, 1991
It was the first war to get the Super Bowl treatment: on-site color commentary, state-of-the-art graphics, even instant replay (of so-called ”smart bombs” hitting targets). In the booth — which in this case was Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel — were Bernard Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett, the CNN correspondents who single-handedly legitimized the ”all news” outlet with their alarming play-by-play. ”It was a great thing for us,” recalls Bob Furnad, then senior exec producer. ”At one point I looked at the monitors that broadcast ABC, CBS, and NBC, and they were all carrying CNN’s [footage].” Rank 44

June 3, 1992
Just as Nixon taught us what not to do on TV, Clinton — the first President to come of age with the medium — showed us how to use it to galvanize this thing called the MTV generation. Visits to the music channel and Arsenio, the early-’90s king of 18-to-34-year-old late-night, cemented Clinton’s politics-as-entertainment appeal. The shades-wearing presidential candidate played ”Heartbreak Hotel” on his sax, then sat for an interview along with wife Hillary. ”He was incredibly gentlemanly around her,” Hall recalls. ”Now it’s like ‘Wow, I guess he treated her nice because he felt guilty.”’ Rank 71

April 5, 1992
Jordan and Pippen. Montana and Rice. Olbermann and Patrick? Indeed, the pantheon of great sports combos welcomed two new members after ESPN paired the snarky, eyebrow-twitching Keith Olbermann with the disarmingly dry-as-a-Tucson-summer Dan Patrick to anchor its nightly SportsCenter. Suddenly, game-losing fumbles proved more guffaw inducing than a Moliere farce, slam dunks had all the resonance of a Shakespearean sonnet, and the sports highlight show was elevated to glib new heights. ”It was a unique thing that happens once in a career,” says ESPN exec John Walsh, who helped forge the partnership. ”Now there are [sportscasters] trying to be Olbermann and Patrick instead of themselves.” Rank 53

Sept. 16, 1992
Seinfeld was the most masturbatory of all shows — and not just because of that inspired ”master of the domain” business. The meta-sitcom was the ultimate in ’90s self-referentiality, and no moment summed that up better than Jerry and George pitching NBC execs a ”show about nothing.” Not only brilliant, but quite close to reality. Says former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield: ”Their actual pitch was pretty unimpressive. It was basically ‘Well, it’s gonna be about our friends and hanging out and the stuff we do.”’ The stuff they did — that inane, petty New York stuff — earned NBC a mint and in the process reinvented the sitcom genre. Rank 16

September 1992
Bored with those pesky sitcoms that keep interrupting commercials? Ron Popeil to the rescue. Since the 1950s, the granddaddy of the infomercial — those hyper half-hour pitches — has been hectoring us to buy Pocket Fishermen, Veg-O-Matics, and other stuff we never knew we needed. But most fantastic, incredible, and hilariously tacky of all was Popeil’s spiel for his spray-on toupee (comes in nine colors!). ”I always use it!” he gushes. Really? ”I use it more than 50 percent of the time.” Popeil left a stain all over TV, too: His exuberant style pervades the fast-growing home-shopping biz. And without him, Cher would never have had a second bizarre career. Rank 66

September 1992
Consider the B-boys’ many accomplishments over the years: They chain-sawed a grasshopper, farted a lot, set fires, spray-painted a dog, and watched plenty of Motley Crue videos. But their very first exploit on MTV’s Liquid Television — when they smacked an innocent amphibian with a Louisville slugger — says it all: The bar had officially been lowered, and the stage set for an era of gross-out TV comedy like South Park. Teens thought the sadistic metalheads cool, but many adults believed they sucked so badly, they were signs of the apocalypse. Not so, counters their creator: ”During the years Beavis and Butt-head was on, the crime rate went down and the economy got better,” says Mike Judge. ”So the country lived through it.” Rank 86

Sept. 21, 1993
Viewers came for the nudity — and stayed for the quality. ”I assumed it’d generate controversy, but I never assumed it’d generate the controversy it did,” admits Steven Bochco, cocreator (with fellow Hill Street alum David Milch) of the ABC series, which debuted with a notorious shot of David Caruso’s kiester. The brouhaha over the drama — which keeps pushing the prime-time limits for sex and language — quickly subsided, but Blue has endured as one of TV’s most resilient cop shows. Even cast changes couldn’t kill it off, as the indestructible Dennis Franz also forged fascinating post-Caruso partnerships with Jimmy Smits and Rick Schroder. Rank 64

March 3, 1993
In only its fifth week, NBC’s Homicide shattered the cop-show format by devoting an entire episode to an intense interrogation. One of the most powerful prime-time hours ever found detectives Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor) hounding a suspected child murderer (Moses Gunn) in an ultimately fruitless quest to extract a confession. ”It was important for [exec producer] Barry Levinson and I to establish that we weren’t going to do the same old show every week,” says Tom Fontana, whose script won an Emmy. Even today, they’re still innovating. Rank 74

Jan. 27, 1993
Fox’s high school serial reached an angst apex in its third season, when good girl Brenda (Shannen Doherty) learned that her bad-boy boyfriend, Dylan (Luke Perry), and her best friend, Kelly (Jennie Garth), had had a fling the previous summer. The love triangle ”was a very hard sell to the network,” says former exec producer Jessica Klein, who cowrote the episode with partner Steve Wasserman. ”They were afraid we would ruin both Brenda and Kelly — and possibly Dylan.” Instead, the story exemplified how the Aaron Spelling-produced 90210 reinvented teen TV by blending modern-day problems — this episode found Brandon (Jason Priestley) addicted to gambling and David (Brian Austin Green) dealing with his dad’s second divorce — with scandalously soapy plots. ”I hate you!” a scorned Brenda screamed at the shamefaced pair during the denouement. ”Never talk to me again!” The Dawson’s Creek gang can only hope to reach such histrionic heights. Rank 61

Sept. 17, 1993
It didn’t take creator Chris Carter long to dive into the Fox series’ mythological murk. The first post-pilot episode, ”Deep Throat,” takes FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully to a hush-hush military installation and introduces us to their titular informant/mentor. Played by Jerry Hardin, Mr. Throat is a disillusioned ”black” operative angling to give the agents a leg up in their quest for the truth. More important, ”it’s the first X-Files where you learn the government is definitely involved with the aliens,” testifies exec producer Frank Spotnitz. The rest, as they say, is history. Rank 37

June 17, 1994
At a measly 45 miles per hour, it was no Formula One race, but O.J. Simpson’s 60-mile freeway ”chase” proved far more riveting. ”It was like no event we’d covered before,” notes CNN’s Jim Moret. ”The chase left us at a loss because all we could do was recount the streets that he was taking and the neighborhoods he was traveling in — it was like a surreal traffic report.” One that, along with the subsequent murder trial, had the nation stopped in its tracks. Rank 30

Nov. 9, 1995
That long-awaited buss between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) — which capped off the NBC series’ first breakout (and most enduring) story line — came after a row in Central Perk, where Ross scolds Rachel for belatedly revealing her affections (Him: ”This ship has sailed!” Her: ”I don’t need your stupid ship!”). ”There was a gasp in the audience,” says exec producer Marta Kauffman. ”And then a huge cheer.” Rank 70

March 9, 1995
NBC’s blockbuster hospital drama outdid its bloody-gutty self with a brutal episode in which Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Greene performs a grisly C-section that saves the baby but kills the mother. The show kept everyone in pregnant pause. ”The night that episode aired, we were shooting late,” recalls Edwards. ”I arrived home at 10:45, and the show was still on. My wife wouldn’t let me in because she wasn’t going to stop watching, and she considered it my fault the mother was dying.” Four years later, the lightning-paced, medical-jargon-laced ”Lost” remains the most intense high available without a prescription. Rank 60

April 30, 1997
”It was the best episode of television I’ve ever worked on in 22 years,” says Ellen director Gil Junger, of Ellen DeGeneres’ TV coming-out party. ”One of the most exciting things for me was to watch someone just be honest with herself and say, ‘This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”’ In the short run people took it — a whopping 36.2 million viewers tuned in to ABC’s revolutionary episode, which eschewed preachiness in favor of heartfelt humor and blinding star power (including Laura Dern, Oprah Winfrey, and Demi Moore). Less than two years after the historic event, the American public — scandalized in the late ’70s by Billy Crystal’s gay Soap character — barely batted an eye when NBC’s gay-themed Will & Grace debuted. Rank 19

Sept. 11, 1998
From couchside, it was hard to discern which was more remarkable — the tales emanating from the independent counsel’s files (and simultaneously dispatched on the Internet) or the sight of CNN reporter Candy Crowley delivering the salacious material straight from her computer. ”It struck me more for the medium than the message,” says Crowley, who remembers saying, ”Give me a second here. I’ve never done cyberspace on TV.” Neither had we. Rank 83

Sept 6, 1997
An affectingly subdued performance from a man better known for Tantrums and Tiaras: Clad in a simple dark suit and seated in front of a black Yamaha piano in London’s Westminster Abbey, John gave teary tribute to his friend the late Princess Diana with a revamped version of his 1973 Marilyn Monroe homage, ”Candle in the Wind.” The spectacle drew an estimated 2.5 billion TV viewers worldwide, a fitting send-off for a made-for-media princess who had much of her adult life — from her 1981 wedding to a 1995 marital-woe-chronicling BBC interview — captured on videotape. Rank 82

Sept. 8, 1998
”Before the game,” recalls Fox announcer Joe Buck of the day McGwire smacked his record-breaking 62nd homer, ”we agreed that if he hit it, the camera would just follow him around the bases and not cut away for reaction shots. That way fans at home would see it like those at the ballpark.” For the 19 million viewers who tuned in, the moment capped a season-long obsession with a quest that managed to reignite a love affair with the national pastime. Rank 75

Dec. 19, 1998
Call it the most schizophrenic news day in TV history. Smack in the middle of Christmas season ’98, the nation’s TV screens were split by three breaking political dramas: the resignation of House speaker-to-be Bob Livingston (he copped to adulterous affairs); the official impeachment of Bill Clinton; and the sight of U.S. missiles once again raining down on a wayward Iraq. According to MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, it was as dizzying to report as to watch. ”You felt like a ball in a pinball machine,” he says. ”It was a good day to expose those who didn’t do their homework.” Rank 84

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