February 19, 2020

The Andy Griffith Show: Unsuitable for children?

A couple of years ago, I linked to an essay in one of our weekly "Around the Dial" features; it's called "The Decline and Fall of The Andy Griffith Show, the premise being that the author didn't think ole Andy and his Mayberry friends were "safe" for his children to watch. I didn't have much to say at the time other than that I thought he was overthinking the whole thing; in fact, I'd forgotten all about it, but a repost of the essay appeared on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I thought it was time to take a closer look at it.

The author is Joseph Pearce, British expat, Catholic author, and theological and social critic, and as you can see from his Wikipedia biography he's lived quite a remarkable life. I didn't mention his name back then, because, frankly, he's more famous than I am and I didn't think he needed the publicity. Although Pearce had been no stranger to American sitcoms growing up in England, The Andy Griffith Show was one that had escaped his attention until moving here, "at which point I became aware that it held an affectionate and nostalgic place in the hearts of many Americans."

Joseph Pearce, reading about—you guessed it.
Even then, he didn't pay much attention to the show, which his wife introduced into the family viewing schedule as something "safe" for the children. "And it was only over the past few weeks, while watching several episodes with our nine-year-old daughter, that I have come to realize that this iconic expression of American culture is not as 'safe' or wholesome as I had thought."

Let me interrupt at this point to disclose that I've never been a particular fan, either of Andy Griffith or The Andy Griffith Show. I realize that puts me in the minority among classic television fans, but it's one of those "your mileage may vary" moments. Nonetheless, even though the show's charms escape me, I've never thought of Mayberry as anything less than wholesome. So what's up? I'll let Pearce explain it in his own words:

The problem lies in the fact that the Mayberry that we see in the first few seasons is systematically undermined so that by the seventh and eighth seasons it has ceased to exist in all but the dereliction of its name, the iconic image of idyllic and idealized small-town America having been desecrated and destroyed by the iconoclasm of sixties’ ideological hedonism. What is presented over the eight years and more than 200 episodes is the demise of Mayberry and all that it represents. What we witness and experience is its decay and disintegration, and ultimately its death. This was brought home to me after I watched several episodes from the first season, in which I basked in the almost prelapsarian warmth of the benign sun that shines forth on the idealized simplicity of the small and beautiful world in which Sheriff Andy Taylor lives, and then, immediately afterwards, I watched an episode from the seventh season* in which the ideal had been swept away by sixties “progressive” preachiness. In this later episode the simple but sagacious Sheriff of earlier seasons has become an emasculated shadow of his former self, passively embracing the feminist modernism of the female protagonist as she undermines traditional values at Mayberry’s high school, encouraging her students to usher in the forthcoming summer of “love,” which would lead to the loveless loneliness of postmodernist alienation. And thus the timeless moral verities that had formed the solid foundation of Mayberry had succumbed to the quicksand quagmire of relativism, sinking without trace into the desert of the urbanized wasteland. And all with Sheriff Andy’s approval.

*"The Senior Play," first broadcast November 14, 1966

Pearce goes on to compare "the idealized world of Mayberry with the idealized world of Hobbiton, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s mythical Shire." In many ways, they reflect the same values, "an ideal to which the better part of ourselves wishes to aspire, an inkling of a perfection to which, paradoxically, all our imperfections point, the latter being merely the perceived lack of the former." There is, however, a difference. More Pearce:

Whereas Mayberry suffers the scourge of modernism, succumbing to its sweet-tasting poison and thereby ceasing to be, the Shire suffers the same modernist scourge but is scoured and restored to health. After the hobbits return home from their quest, they discover that their beloved homeland had succumbed to industrialization and the crass materialism and big government socialism that is its consequence. Instead of capitulating and moving with the times, as does Sheriff Andy, they fight with indomitable courage to defeat the modernist enemy and to heal the culture which had been contaminated by it. The Shire is scoured; it is cleansed and purged.

Pearce's conclusion suggests that Mayberry has become a victim of a certain sort of nihilism; "[I]f we believe that there is nothing but decay we can expect nothing but death. This is the deadly price of decadence. If, however, we believe that the very heart of life is love, and that love is inseparable from a dying to ourselves, we will see that this sort of death always leads to resurrection. If we truly learn to love our neighbours and to love our neighbourhoods, laying down our lives for them in the spiritual death which is the essence of love, we can scour the Shire and rekindle the vision of human dignity which makes Mayberry feel like home." Or, in the parlance of the Sixties, "All you need is love."

Now, far be it from me to criticize anyone for introducing postmodernism, iconoclasm and relativism to the world of classic television; I'm certainly not an anti-intellectual, since I'm prone to discussing existentialism myself. Still, on rereading Pearce's essay, my reaction now is the same as it was two years ago: I think he's overthinking things. Perhaps the show's later seasons do lack the "prelapsarian warmth" of the early episodes, but is this due to "the quicksand quagmire of relativism," or is it more a case of the writers running out of ideas, and trying desperately to make the series relevant in a culture that was rapidly evolving out of control?

It's not surprising that Pearce invokes Tolkien and the Hobbit stories, given that one of the books he's authored is Tolkien: Man and Myth. Nevertheless, he comes across as one of those guys you meet at a party—you know, that guy who knows everything about one particular subject, and finds a way to work it into the conversation no matter what you're talking about. It could be the presidential election, the weather, the Super Bowl; you can be sure he's somehow going to steer it back to Tolkien. And don't misunderstand me; I consider myself second to none in my admiration for the works of Tolkien. I love the Hobbit stories, especially when Orson Bean plays one of them. But, just as the case of that guy at the party, pretty soon you just start to tune him out, and I think it was at this point that Pearce lost me.

I'm only too willing to grant that Pearce is right in much of what he says about the underlying message being delivered in "The Senior Play." The question is this: for those viewers less learned than Pearce, would they have the same takeaways at the end of the episode? And if we're going to talk about Mayberry in such a hyperrealistic way, how can we overlook the racial component? Let's face it: Mayberry is in the heart of the South (is it North Carolina? I've always thought so, for some reason), which in the Sixties wasn't exactly the most racially harmonious part of the country. What Pearce sees as "idyllic and idealized small-town America" looks quite different to progressive writer Ta-Nehisi Coats, who quotes his friend Brooke: "And as we all know--we all know this, right?--a 'simpler time' is shorthand for a time when white people didn't have to think about whether they were treating nonwhite people (or women) like humans. As Brooke said, it was mostly the 'good old boys' who still clung to the ideals of Mayberry." Apparently, when it comes to this small town, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Maybe we should just forget the whole damned town of Mayberry altogether.

As you can see, I'm somewhat conflicted about all this. I kind of agree with Pearce but not completely, and there's maybe something about his manner and reasoning that sort of turns me off. But, as I admitted at the beginning, I'm not a fan of the show. I'm sure many of you out there are. So let me put the question to you: is Pearce right? Would you let your kids watch The Andy Griffith Show? Or does its "decline and fall" mirror the disintegration of American culture in general; is it, does it, in fact, precipitate the decline? Share your experiences in the comments, and tell me what you think. TV  

10 comments:

  1. The problem with the Andy Griffith Show was that by the fifth season the writers were having to churn out a 24 minute episode each week without changing or allowing change in the principle characters yet all around America people everywhere were changing in a multitude of manners. Couple this with actors wanting out of the series (Don Knotts wanted to go into movies and Andy Griffith had grown tired of the show) and you start sinking into potential quagmire.

    Now, it is true that Mayberry suffered from lack of racial diversity. There were a few black people shown as citizens over the years but none were regulars appearing in more than one episode. This had more to do with the common American television culture of the day than Andy's (or anyone else connected with the show)feelings towards black people. You just didn't see national exposure of black people on television outside the Ed Sullivan Show. As racial barriers were being brought down and eliminated the Andy Griffith Show had already peaked, Knotts had left the series, and Andy had maintained a running affair with Opie's school teacher (in real life and on the show) then stepped down to be replaced by Ken Berry in a Griffith owned offshoot "Mayberry R.F.D." It didn't fare as well as its parent show as the simplistic, folksy comedy was no longer viable.

    To call the show unsafe for children is an injustice but to idolize it as true nostalgia is equally unjustified. The show was never about accuracy of Americana as it only attempted to evoke pleasant, stylized, and relatable memories of a more peaceful time, albeit one that never really existed anywhere. Who couldn't love a barbershop without hair trimmings on the floor, a dowdy aunt bringing around homemade pies and pickles, a deputy not allowed to have a loaded gun (because he'd hurt himself), winnable and honest county fair contests, a town drunk that turns himself in each night, Ernest T. Bass as your biggest threatening citizen, and a fix-it shop with nothing broken and no paying customers?

    Let your children watch it with a simple discussion of your parental concerns of what is and what isn't real. Enjoy the characters and may you one day find counterparts within your own town to support your efforts the same way the townsfolk of Mayberry supported their sheriff.

    More importantly, realize this show was a huge step up from the tedium of 50's sitcoms far removed from the pablum of Ozzie & Harriet and the predictable bombast of Make Room For Daddy.

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  2. You were correct. This guy was way over thinking things. Not only is the introduction of the frug not indicative of anything other than teens want to dance, but that one episode seems to be considered the worst one in the show's history, primarily because of how atypical it was.

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    1. That's a good point - one episode does not a series make.

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  3. Good grief. Pearce's comments are the most convoluted statement of preference for 'the black and white over the color episodes' I've ever read.
    The impression I get from Tolkien fans is that they are all 'that guy at the party',and the level of 'overthinking' Pearce displays here is a requirement of the fandom.

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    1. As I said, I admire Tolkien's work greatly; I think he does speak truth. I don't, however, know that it was a good fit in this case. The square peg in the round hole.

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  4. Definitely overthinking. Bill Flanigan's essay "My Vanishing Sons" written for Spy magazine in 1978 is better... and a whole lot funnier! http://www.panix.com/~clp/humor/Note/Note6.81.txt

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    1. That's very funny! I'll have to spotlight that on Friday!

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  5. Television is a collaborative art, and tv series, especially long-running ones, rarely display consistent viewpoints. Some episodes of Andy are more feminist, some less, but shows are going to evolve over time and reflect societal changes. If later Andy is too much for his kids, how will they possibly cope with the world we have now?

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  6. The Andy Griffith Show is one of my favorite shows. I grew up in a "modern day Mayberry" so it reminds me of the best part of my childhood. It is not perfect, nor are the people. I have noticed people lying to or deceiving others on the show. I don't me just a kid making an excuse or trying to get something from somebody, but adults lying and deceiving. Telling Aunt Bea that her pickles are delicious or tricking Brisco Darlin with invisible ink so Opie will not have to marry Charlene's daughter.mind you, this does not happen for ill gotten gain, but it does happen.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!