How to tell the children. Should they be told individually or in a group? "We could tell Judith Friday night after dinner," the wife says, but then the husband breaks down weeping at the dinner table for n o apparent reason. The children must be told what the apparent reason is.

"Too Far to Go," an almost exotically ambitious and substantial TV-movie made for the "NBC Theater" series and being televised tonight at 9 on Channel 4, is based on 17 short stories about "Joan and Richard Maple" written over a 23-year period by John Updike. The film qualifies as an American "Scenes from a Marriage" except that it really consists of scenes from an un-marriage and also because it is better than Ingmar Bergman's film by a long shot.

The Maples live in a very, very, very nice house. They look and talk, unlike most characters in fictions seen on television, as if they would know what to do with a book should one appear in their laps. Their problems include jet lag and late commuter trains and suspicions of infidelity. They may seem a little shallow, but shallow people get hurt, too. They're no more shallow than lots of people who get kicked in the head every day.

"Too Far to Go" isn't the procession of hysterical encounters one might dread -- it being far beyond just another soap operetta on marital breakup -- nor the standard computer printout that TV networks like to pass off as serious drama about a social problem. The only social problem it's about is the social problem that everyone who tries to have a relationship faces. On the delicate topic of trying to make things last longer than one knows they should, or fears they can, or hopes they will, "Too Far to Go" is incisive and enlightened. It is as sharp as an icicle.

William Hanley's screenplay, boiling the stories and the marriage down to two hours or so, is enviably intelligent without by any means being humorless.Accusations and guilt thunk around like blue rubber racquet balls in the old home court. The husband imagines the wife confessing to sexual relations with nearly every man in their lives. Even her yoga instructor.

"I didn't think it mattered," she says. "It was part of the exercise."

Veteran TV director Fielder Cook has finely tuned the mood of the piece to a precision Bach might envy, yet there is always room for a comic or poignant surprise, and his eye and ear for detail are wickedly alert. The Maples are depicted as being recklessly cozy in their affluence, and so are their children, who say things like, "I'm still not entirely clear on that" and, after a trip to Europe, "I didn't like Nice very much."

As the husband, Michael Moriarty -- hampered only by his fitful Boston "ar's" -- manages any number of new variations on delivery and reaction. Sometimes he's maybe too industrious, and his line readings seem out of the blue, and yet this also helps keep him just plain fascinating. His chinadoll face still looks perpetually surprised to find itself on his old an's head.

Blythe Danner plays the wife, and while there are too many scenes in which she turns suddenly toward the camera, she has found much more in this character than just another stock victimized wife. She dares to be a victimizer herself -- like in real life, where blame and innocence are such damnably ify things. When she cries, it starts, convincingly, and somehow visibly, in her throat. I kept thinking how glad I was that Jane Alexander wasn't playing this part. Danner has much more latitude and longitude.

The executive producer, Robert Geller, also produced "The American Short Story," that outstanding public TV series that got short shrift from PBS because it wasn't flying the Union Jack. Geller and producer Chiz Schultz must have given Updike all kinds of assurances that his work would be approached with class and care, and they made good. From the opening shot of quietly plush wallpaper to the last note of the delicate and shrewdly-apportioned score by Elizabeth Swados, this is a production for which no award would be good enough.

The film could be called too wordy but for the fact that most of the words are unusually well chosen. Cook is particularly adept at disguising talkiness with visual invention. In particular, a scene involing the tying of a bow tie, the rough brushing of hair, and the shout of "divorce me, hit me, do something," has a forceful and yet subtly comic smack.

Many scenes would qualify as highlights if a body count were to be kept. After moving out, the husband wants the wife to see his new bachelor apartment. She says, "It needs a woman's touch." Fetching flashbacks to earlier days of the marriage include its first day, when the happy couple had all but left the church when the bride said, "You forgot to kiss me," and the groom, his eyes and mouth equally round, exclaimed, "Oh, no!"

The Maples are no less real for being so nonchalantly well off. Tears that fall on fancy-patterned pillowcases are as wet as any other kind. The husband is something of an everyman indeed when he begins a phone conversation with "sweetie, it's me," and the daughter is something of an everygirl when she mistakenly sets a place at the head of the table for a father who has left home.

"I forgot," she says.

NBC has broadcast most of the best movies made for television this season -- many of them, it might strategically be noted at this time, instigated or authorized by Paul Klein, who just left the network -- yet all the fanfare has gone for supertrains and cliffhangers. People in high positions at every network have no idea how good their best programs are. One might almost speculate that "Too Far to Go" is somehow too good for television, but that would be an erroneous judgment made on the basis of conditioned expectations.

There is enough nasty truth in "Too Far to Go" to end a war, or to start one. It is imbued with the kind of wisdom that says no amount of wisdom can prevent people from screwing up each other's lives.