TV's weird approach to reality

Posted: Dec 28, 2000 12:00 AM
They call it "reality TV," but the latest wave of new family television shows rolling out of La-La-Land is about as realistic as "Triumph of the Will." Divorce propaganda, I call it: dedicated to the proposition that nothing stands between a human being and her happiness except that dull, depressing thing called a spouse.

Where do I begin?

First there's "Temptation Island," a "provocative new reality-based show" in which, according to the Fox press release, four unmarried (thank God for small favors) but "seriously committed" couples will be transported to an exotic zone. There, mateless and unscrupulous singles will attempt to entice them into betraying their old love. After two weeks of "exploring the single world again," each member of the couple will decide: the old POSSLQ or the new bimbo?

It doesn't stop there. Call it the new dysfunctional family hour. Fox's fall lineup includes "Titus," a sitcom about a father with a string of ex-wives. ABC's "The Geena Davis Show" takes us into the wacky world of cohabiting couples raising children without worrying about marriage. The WB network's "Gilmore Girls" features two teen-age daughters and their unmarried mom, who proclaims, "By not getting married, we kept our bright futures!"

Meanwhile, back in the real world, unmarried mothers are five times more likely to be poor. Even when they are not poor, as University of Chicago Professor Linda J. Waite and I point out in our book, "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially," research confirms that women, as well as men, are hurt by not being married. Women raising children alone are at higher risk for physical illness, depression, anxiety, domestic violence and other violent crime, alcoholism and other substance abuse, and even personal unhappiness. Married people even have better sex more often than their single or divorced counterparts. Take that, Titus!

Every time I talk about "The Case for Marriage," I get asked: If marriage is so good for you, why is there so much divorce? Good question. Surely one small reason is that the realities of divorce are seldom allowed to intrude into our popular portrayals of it. Instead, in media from sitcoms to women's magazines, divorce is typically portrayed as the great liberation, especially for women.

Even Madonna and Gloria Steinem are, after protracted periods celebrating the adolescent joys of flying solo, settling down (and good luck to them both), but on TV we still get the Hollywood Happy Face: When it comes to portraying single life, the script that gets sold is not "Microwave Pizza Alone, Again," it's "Sex and the City." When it comes to portraying divorce, TV goes into cover-up mode: Fatherless Families! It's not a social crisis! It's a great idea for a new hit TV series!

In February, Fox will air "I Want a Divorce!" which is some sadomasochist's idea of an entertaining new premise for a game show. Couples who have already filed for divorce will go on national TV to hash out the details of their divorce settlement. Contestants may not have children under age 18 (thank God for small favors). If the two-hour special in sweeps week is a success, a series may be in the offing. The answering machine set up to answer calls from potential contestants trills, "Turn your divorce into a good thing!" according to Eve Tushnet's story in the National Catholic Register. Peter Isacksen, executive producer for the show's parent company, calls it good, clean "voyeuristic fun." Look for the sequel, "I Want a Root Canal!" in which the contestant who agrees to the greatest amount of dental work with the least amount of novocaine wins a new car. Coming soon to a network near you.

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