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September 18, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV has spent years spinning its own labor fable, a sort of "Alice in Workland" whose illusions undoubtedly help shape our views of actual working America.

Characters in TV rarely work. But when they do, their jobs usually become jokes.

Oh, most TV characters obviously have jobs outside the home. How else could they buy groceries and pay the rent or mortgage? But their occupations are usually phantom, a plot crutch occasionally mentioned only to move the story along.

With the exception of private eyes and a few others, TV characters generally live out their TV lives on the domestic front ("Honey, I'm home"), not the work front.

We watch them enjoy the material fruits of their labors--like the well-furnished family room or center-island kitchen where sitcom families invariably gather. We watch them lick their work-inflicted wounds, a la Jackie Gleason's ever-frustrated bus driver on "The Honeymooners." What we're rarely shown is the actual job combat.

Merely hearing TV characters talk about their work can be startling. Unlike most TV characters, partners Michael and Elliot of ABC's "thirtysomething" are no strangers to their jobs. Even beyond that, however, you get just from their dialogue a sense of the work they do, their joys and frustrations and the creative compromises they're required to make in operating a small advertising agency. This faint ring of authenticity is better than no ring at all.

The problem with depicting TV characters doing their jobs in a realistic way is apparent, however, when we contemplate our own work experiences. Heart pounding? Pulse quickening? Non-stop excitement?

Not likely. What a businessman said two years ago in the PBS documentary "Hollywood's Favorite Heavy" pretty much applies to all jobs:

"The business of business is boring."

Too boring for TV, at least. This is a medium with a ravenous appetite for action, the kind of frenetic behavior that is supposed to engage, thrill and captivate viewers. It's also behavior that we generally don't seek or encounter in our relatively humdrum, 9-to-5 work worlds.

High wires without safety nets? No, thank you. Most of us want job security, not job high jinks. Hence, most of our jobs are not the stuff of TV fiction, and even relatively stimulating or exciting ones include long arid stretches that would not make for exhilarating viewing.

So when TV does venture into the workplace, some serious fudging occurs.

Who says the business of business is boring? TV fixes that by depicting most people in business as scheming, corrupt and frequently even murderous. Yes, it's a tough corporate world out there.

TV's business characters are eternally cutting deals their competitors simply can't refuse--if they want to remain healthy. With such pervasive, sinister TV imagery in their minds, it's likely that many Americans regard--and passively accept--big business as a big villain.

Is it also possible that kids en route to business careers take their cues at least in part from TV's unsavory images? In "Hollywood's Favorite Heavy," some upper-middle-class New York high school students were asked if they agreed with the following: "When it comes to your business and your morals, they usually separate when you get to the money."

They agreed.

They were asked: "Would you lie, blackmail, steal and cheat as a last resort to keep your business afloat?"

Unanimously, the answer was affirmative.

Would you buy a used car from any of these kids? Their attitude may not be so shocking when you consider that America's most-recognized and most-celebrated business titan of the 1980s is not Lee A. Iacocca or Donald Trump. That title belongs to a character in a CBS series. The series is "Dallas," and the character, played to bloodless, smirking perfection by Larry Hagman, is oilman J. R. Ewing.

Someone once asked J. R. how he could live with himself.

No problem, he replied. "Once you give up integrity, the rest is easy."

The same question could be directed to TV executives who use the medium to distort working America through errors of commission or omission. No problem. Once you give up reality, the rest is easy.

So . . .

Who is designated to protect decent society from TV's malevolent business types? TV's cops, of course, those detective partners who constantly bicker because one is strait-laced and the other a maverick who does things "his way."

Their way is rarely the way of real-life cops. Even NBC's late, great "Hill Street Blues"--which at least honestly explored the emotional currents of police work--put its precinct house on fast forward to keep viewers interested.

If TV's cops fail, who fills the void? TV's private eyes, of course, those Rockfords and Magnums whose perils would give cardiac arrest to the real-life private detectives who rarely tackle anything more challenging than a divorce case.

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