Let's be frank. Sex is everywhere on the small screen these days. It's casual, it's cheap (devoid of consequences), and it's fantastical. Real life is seldom this lurid or this easy. Predatory self-interest is sometimes satirized, but more often touted as the norm on TV.
What used to be reserved for late night is now prime time - or worse, daytime. Even the news and newsmagazines, which are not rated, exploit the allegations of misbehavior in Washington, for example, using language that no seven-year-old should have to process.
Many daytime talk shows dig up sleaze on a regular basis. And the kids are watching.
But as bad as "Melrose Place" and "Jerry Springer" can get, it's the cumulative effect of sitcoms that may be most problematic. They are fun and they are funny. Under the mantle of laughter, they tend to normalize conscience-free sexual exploitation of others. The melodramas at least include some inkling that unrestrained predatory urges can be emotionally damaging, while the sitcoms are too often cynical about love, trivializing both sex and the relationship.
Of course, not all are equally objectionable. Some comedies, like Ally McBeal, Spin City, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Just Shoot Me, and Suddenly Susan, have a parodistic element that effectively skewers the mores of our time. They may dress every episode in the usual round of innuendoes and one-liners, but with under-the-surface jokes, something more is going on.
And while most sitcoms are as far removed from the genuine issues of human intimacy as daytime TV is from art, a few do try to incorporate humane values. Dharma and Greg, Mad About You, and Home Improvement are clever comedies about love and marriage that mock the very human frailties of their characters without trivializing their affections.
The married people in these shows are committed to their relationship, not just to each other. And the relationship is the thing they work to preserve - the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The jokes in the context of these shows take on a degree of warmth, of mutual consideration, and of kindness absent from so many other shows.
Whereas, shows like the ever-popular Friends, the whiny Veronica's Closet, the charmless Fired Up, and the truly cynical Unhappily Ever After lack humanity - nothing matters but instant gratification - and they promote the idea that heartbreak isn't very serious. The relationships even in the best of these - the very funny "Friends" - are so self-centered that we know in real life they could not be maintained over time.
Do these shows really reflect the American sensibility? Have we really become as desensitized, crass, and predatory as all that?
James Wall, editor of The Christian Century, says that far from reflecting the majority of Americans, these characters represent the interests of a handful of creative types in Hollywood and New York.
"All of these shows have one basic principle," says Mr. Wall. "It's not whether the characters will be sexually involved, but when and how. I think of it as individualism run amok, as if there were no implication for the rest of the world."
In a recent "Fired Up," one character put off a prospective lover until the fifth date. In a "Veronica's Closet," the title character (Kirstie Alley) couldn't wait to get through divorce proceedings with her husband to rekindle an affair with an old flame. In a recent "Ally McBeal," Ally's (Calista Flockhart) "biological clock" ticked so loudly she hallucinated a dancing baby and then engaged in a one-night stand. The entire show was about primitive impulses - a female impulse to procreate and male impulse to fight were metaphorically linked - as if human beings were no more than a collection of these urges.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about sitcom sex is that none of these characters questions whether all this bed-hopping is healthy or wise, let alone moral. And when we don't question what the media is doing, it's not funny anymore.