Not since the premiere of Chicken Soup for the Crackwhore's Soul has America been subject to a more inadvertently subversive chunk of cultural production. Flox's Dysfunction Junction seems an attempt to put the struggling B-list network back on the television map after the initial success of their ground breaking ethnic variety show In Heaving Odor.
The premise of the new show is simple: put six nutjobs in a house and make them live together. Then, roll camera. Dysfunction Junction tops even CBS's Big Brother series in its Foucaultian phreakishness, combining both the urban paranoia of the Benthamite panopticon with Foucault's other great love, insanity. While some may question the wisdom of 24/7 surveillance of the schizophrenic, Steve, no one should miss the chronic unpredictability of the manic depressive, Pat, whose mania to shop is curtailed by the limitations of the Dysfunction Junction house (a former mansion in a formerly "nice" neighborhood in an undisclosed Midwestern town). She redirects her manic episodes into tearing up the set, baking, and nymphomania - often simultaneously. This causes no small amount of frustration for the show's token autistic, Bill, who screams right back at Pat while the latter is busy ripping off his clothes and overturning the furniture.
When Pat goes back depressive and the set quiets down, Regina's "scared child" personality comes out of the closet where it has been hiding and begins again to play. More interesting is that her reaction to Bill is to try to bathe him like a doll-baby, causing the screaming to start again and causing Regina to revert to "Bertha," the self-proclaimed "dyke trucker" personality. She then proceeds to sit on Bill until he submits.
This describes the first ten minutes of the first episode. The next ten take us into Steve's room where we get a diatribe against a government that would plant a faulty micro-chip into Regina which causes so much trouble when its programming goes awry. The directors wisely cut away before that gets any weirder and cut to the sociopath Mike's room where he is busy building bombs and sharpening knives. The show's producers, when questioned at a press conference, seemed little concerned that among the pictures stuck to the walls of Mike's room with hunting knives and knitting needles are those of Claudia Schiffer, veteran 60 Minutes reporter Morely Safer, and the producers themselves. "It's all under control," they contended.
And I'll bet it is.
And I'm sure they're in control of Phoebe, whose obsessive/compulsive disorder has her flipping the lights off and on fifty times before she leaves or enters a room. I'm sure they're in control of her when she obsessively counts the number of tiles in the bathroom walls, when she has to wash her hands a hundred times before she can have sex with Pat, who, manic, is desperately beating at the bathroom door trying to get at her.
Certain critics have suggested that perhaps Dysfunction Junction is a bit cruel to its contestants. Instead of treating these poor people's problems, the critics say, they're allowed essentially to run the asylum all by themselves. But that criticism is misplaced. After all, all six of the contestants in this, um, "reality" show were plucked off the street. They weren't getting treated anyway, none have insurance, and they all might have frozen to death spending another winter outside. And while that's just fine with Steve, who is suspicious of walls "since it's so easy to infect them with insect-sized listening devices," at least the rest of these people have a roof over their heads. So even though they remain untreated, they're still at least marginally better off.
The genius of the show's design must also not be discounted. Other reality programming pits ostensibly "normal" people against one another in farcical and humiliating situations in order to vie for cash and prizes. Dysfunction Junction cuts out the profit motive entirely. With most of these people, Mike (who seems to be intensely goal-oriented) aside, just getting through the day can be considered a success. Pat, who shops during her manic episodes, would simply be enabled in her neurosis by prize money, doing her positive harm. And Bill, the autistic, wouldn't know what to do with a Porsche Boxster if he won one anyway. This helps keep costs for the show low, allowing an already struggling upstart network to provide first-rate tastelessness to an insatiable American public. In a purely Utilitarian sense, then, we're all better off. The Greater Good is maximized: the prime national directive to be entertained at all costs is upheld.
Simultaneously, Dysfunction Junction inadvertently critiques a culture that views insanity as represented in, say, a homeless man's religious mania, as frightening and potentially dangerous, but a president's religious mania as "bold leadership for the 21st Century." In America, if you shoot five people and say God told you to do it, you'll get lethal injection. But if you shoot 5,000 by sending an army into a backward but oil-rich Middle-Eastern dictatorship and say God told you to do it, you'll likely get re-elected.
In other words, as much as Dysfunction Junction, by presenting crazy people in charge of their own house, is certainly Marxian reification, it's also a cultural statement of fact, a funhouse mirror that accidentally allows us to see ourselves as we really are.