The reason the administration is having so much trouble mustering support for its Nicaragua policy is that it has been unable to transform the Central America debate into a sitcom or a prime-time soap. The other side -- by which I mean the largely Democratic congressional opposition, not the Sandinistas -- hasn't been doing so well at this either. In fact, it was the first to fail: the Sandinista regime proved far too purposeful and brutal for the Robin Hood role that some on the left had written into the script for it. Similarly, the contra army has proved far too much of a mixed bag -- some good guys, some truly awful ones -- to be perceived as the romantic liberation force its friends insist on, a Latin American version of the U.S. militia thundering in at the last minute to save the day.

Central casting has been defeated, in other words, and policy defeat in the form of a kind of political paralysis may follow. Increasingly it seems that the members of the public who pay attention to these things and the politicians who cater to them insist on interpreting international conflict in TV drama terms. Characters take precedence over issues, but both must be fairly simple since these are our latter- day morality plays and melodramas. They require one-dimensional, walking embodiments of something, dramatis personae you can count on to surprise you only by becoming breathtakingly more of whatever it is they already are (good, bad, devious, put-upon, weak) but not different or, God forbid, more complex.

Ever since TV drama got established in our culture, we have been reinterpreting life in its terms. Some 30 years ago John Steinbeck wrote a piece in a magazine about how he knew that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was doomed with the public the day a Steinbeck child, watching the famous televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which he apparently mistook for just another drama, identified McCarthy as "the bad guy." Both TV and life have become, if anything, even less subtle since then. Where surpassingly important but unscriptable things are going on in the world, from Argentina and Brazil to Poland and China, if we cannot have clear-cut soap or sitcom figures to follow, we lose interest. Lech Walesa and Deng Xiaoping showed some early foot, but the plots got complicated in both cases and their ratings dropped. Where preposterous but reliable figures appear and hang on, on the other hand, the drama continues to dominate our political imagination.

Consider the Ayatollah Khomeini. A hundred hallucinating scriptwriters couldn't have thought of him. He is Dr. Moriarty and Wo Fat rolled into one -- but worse; like J. R. Ewing he is reliably evil, even when he briefly gives the tantalizing impression of being about to do something that is almost good. And, more importantly, he can be counted on absolutely to prevail despite sustaining a series of close calls and body blows that would long since have felled any lesser mortal. You finish him off, you look up -- and damned if he isn't there again. It is almost comforting. It makes you think you understand the world: he is what is waiting in the wings.

I think it is safe to say that almost all Americans have found some solace in detesting the ayatollah, but none more so than the gloom bearers on the right. Ayatollahs, they will tell you, are what happen when you topple a friendly right- wing dictator in one of those trying Third World places. He has become their vindication, the Horrible Example whose very existence is meant to foreclose argument and choice. He has supplanted Castro and easily repels competition from the amorphous Borge and Ortega bunch as living proof that whatever comes after what you had is immeasurably worse.

That, of course, was before we were all privileged to peer into the steamer trunks of Ferdinand and Imelda. Stand back, Joan Collins and Jane Wyman. You thought Alexis Carrington-Colby-Dexter had a wardrobe? You thought Angela Channing was about as coldblooded and malign as it got? You thought you had seen vulgarity, cupidity and cunning in a woman? Like the ayatollah, the Marcoses -- particularly Madame -- have star quality. I expect that in political terms something like a network-ratings war is going to take place, the networks being, roughly speaking, left and right. The question is: who is more monstrous, the toppler (Khomeini) or the toppled (Ferdinand and Imelda)? The Philippine soap has reversed the familiar plot. In this case the toppler, Corazon Aquino, seems as implausible a figure as all the other virtuous ones in TV drama do. As scripting goes, in fact, she is just as outrageous as the ayatollah or Imelda of the Suitcases: nobody will believe it . . . too farfetched.

Except, that people do. In fact, it seems to be the very fictionlike quality of it that has caught on and that, alas, is likely to lead us to project those entertaining but misleading sitcom-soap values on the reality before us. I observe, for example, that even as the street mugger almost invariably turns out to be a benign, misunderstood, noncriminal figure in your average sitcom -- and a guy with a great sense of humor, morally somewhat superior to the guy he was about to rob -- so the nasty insurgent crowd in the Philippine countryside are being reinvented as impetuous, misguided kids who didn't really have much in mind in the first place.

We love the Philippine drama. It would be perfect Thursday nights at 9. We don't love the drama in Central America. It is too hard. The characters are too complicated. There are no stars. The directors and writers can't agree on the plot. Terrible things are happening. What one side in this country thinks will stop them, the other thinks will only make them worse. In truth, it is not a situation comedy, but a situation tragedy. Whichever American side succeeds in rewriting it as a simple and salable TV drama will probably get its policy way.