TV's Glorification Of Adultery

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All the experts say that the answer to many of our social ills is a stronger family life, where two parents are true to each other and nurture their child or children in a loving atmosphere in an undivided home.

Some of our should-be role models haven't given us much help in recent times. In Britain Prince Charles has been off cavorting with Camilla Parker Bowles, and Princess Di's progression from one boyfriend to another is chronicled in the press almost daily.

In the United States the Kennedys, the nearest thing we have to a royal clan, have left a long string of out-of-marriage affairs behind them, starting with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. through President John F. Kennedy and continuing with an array of scandals involving the lesser, current Kennedy men.

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Our current president, Bill Clinton, is surrounded by persistent rumors of marital infidelity. The same goes for many pop music, entertainment, and sports celebrities, to whom many of our children look for their heroes.

All this is tough enough to counter for parents seeking to instill what, since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, are quaintly called "old-fashioned values." In fact, these ideas should be seen as timely, revolutionary, and desirable, given what the sexual revolution has done to erode family values, create dysfunctional children, and contribute to the nation's drug use and crime rate.

But now comes television, that most persuasive of influences on the young, engendering sympathy for the philanderer, the adulterer, the home wrecker.

The New York Times reports that adultery has become one of mainstream television's hot topics in the coming season. Writer Caryn James says that the new shows mirror a "newly realistic and deeply pessimistic attitude toward marriage in the contemporary world."

In days gone by, says the Times story, unfaithfulness automatically marked a character as a villain or a home wrecker. Now, although no television shows are suggesting that philandering is a good idea, philanderers are often "major characters we like and sympathize with."

Thus, in the pilot for "Brooklyn South," the new TV season's most anticipated drama, a police sergeant cleans out the locker of a colleague who has been killed. As he separates items that go to the wife from those that go to the girlfriend, he tells a rookie that the dead man had compartments in his life. "He died today doing his job, and there's no reason those different parts have to wind up hurting each other."

Or think of teenagers watching "Veronica's Closet," the coming season's much-ballyhooed comedy show. Ms. James says that in the pilot, the lingerie-company mogul played by Kirstie Alley gets tips from friends about how to deal with her philandering husband. Cheat yourself, urges her best friend.

This is some great advice for young people contemplating the sanctity and commitments of marriage.

Then there's the upcoming "Nothing Sacred," in which the hero, a Roman Catholic priest, runs into a former lover, now in a troubled marriage. Will they or won't they? Stay tuned. James says all this is a "great improvement over the days when television defied reality and insisted that marriage was a constant state of unblemished monogamy." The new shows reflect not only "real life, but the celebrity life that so often sets the standard for public opinion."

I think we could do with less glamorization of the kind of life led by some members of the British royal family, or certain American politicians, athletes, and entertainment stars. A lot of TV viewers agree. According to polls, the great majority believe that adultery is wrong.

Television has done its best - or worst - to glamorize booze and tobacco and violence over the years. It doesn't now need to add marital infidelity to the list of society's ills that should be accepted or glamorized.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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