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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Endings (19)—Mayberry R.I.P.

Requiescat in pace, Mayberry, North Carolina. I read the news of Andy Griffith's passing today with a note of surprise. I do not want this to sound rude—I mean this sincerely—but I had been pretty sure that Andy Griffith had been gone for some time. What I realized as the day went on was that Andy's fictional world of Mayberry had been gone for some time. Everyone knew this in 1968, I am told, including Andy Griffith, who would go on to fame in another television series in the 1980s and 1990s. He had a kind of homespun savvy about these matters, and it served him well over the years.

I grew up with Andy, and liked him. His fictional son, Opie, and I were close enough in age to make him seem like a kind of monochromatic brother figure to me. I admired Andy, laughed at Barney Fife, and struggled with the same familial issues—such as passing a baked potato to a guest at dinner with my bare hands—that occupied young Opie. Aunt Bee could have been one of my Norwegian great aunts, so closely did she resemble them, down to every detail except lefse rolling. Gomer Pyle, Floyd the Barber, and other characters rounded out this small town in mass society.

I was even born in a little town that had a similar name—Mayville, North Dakota. The shops, the gas stations, and even the tree-lined streets, with friendly neighbors calling out from their porches ("be careful at the pool!"), had a sort of black-and-white cultural resonance for me. Mayville...Mayberry. I sensed a few commonalities, at least beyond the weather. I watched it all.

[b] Fishing wholesome RF
In reruns.

You see, although it is possible that I caught a few episodes while it was actually on the air, I watched the show mostly in the cynical American afterglow of Vietnam War protests and Watergate hearings. The world had changed, but the show was everywhere. It was almost impossible not to notice the theme song every one (of a certain age) in America knows. On days when I was home sick from school, I watched way too much television, and the folksy reruns began almost as soon as the school day did. Although it is clear to me now that I would have been better off in school—even with a touch of strep—I got a peculiar education on those recuperative holidays, and it taught me a little bit about history, anthropology, memory, nostalgia...and irony. 

I became an ethnographer of Mayberry. I recognized bits and pieces of small town life in those episodes, and many of them rang true even though we had moved from the bucolic steppe right into the heart of American political and social conflict. Watching the Andy Griffith Show six blocks away from the University of Wisconsin—and during the height of the war protests—would give even a fourth-grader a few tremors of cognitive dissonance. In retrospect, I sort of like the way it played out. There I was, nine years old and more politically aware than most fourth-graders outside of university towns, watching Andy and Opie work through the ethical and moral issues of their day, with large doses of Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Parenting ideology. 

[c] Avian RF
And then Opie killed the bird. This was a game changer in my young life. Opie, shootin' away at trees with his new slingshot, killed Mommy Bird. I had heard a story like that back when I was younger, and it had not gone well—for me. Bambi made me cry, back in the day, and I was not prepared for the image of three hungry little mouths to feed after Opie took out 媽媽 with a pebble to the gullet. That was a lesson that made Mayberry just as relevant to me as Madison, and I exercised greater care with implements that could become weapons of avian destruction.

Despite the key lessons that Opie and I were learning together, the show felt oddly out of place. Even a young northerner could recognize that all of the faces were white. I had learned enough American history and geography to wonder about the implausibility of such a scene. Something else struck me, although I certainly could not have articulated it back then. While there surely was some contention—a little bit of low-grade strife, not the least in Aunt Bee's ongoing string of suitors—this was mostly of the "narrative tension" sort common to thirty-minute dramas. What I would later come to know as conflict sociology seemed to skim right above the surface of this close-knit, homogeneous, homo sapiens community. I could see the roots of unresolved passive-aggressive behavior everywhere—all unresolved. Instead, the show had a peculiar monaural analog brand of structural-functionalism, and I wasn't buying it even back then.

That was then. Now I begin to wonder where Andy Griffith fits into all of this. 

Even Sheriff Andy Taylor can be read against the grain of the genre, and is by no means easy to peg (as the much less subtle spinoff, Mayberry R.F.D. was). Andy Griffith the person and actor, however, was a little more complicated. He was a firm Christian, loved hymns, and truly valued many of the show's lessons. He also understood his everlasting place in a kind of innocents-at-home nostalgia that is to this day a hallmark of Mayberry. It was good for business, and he learned the same lessons that pop musicians ignore at their peril—the audience wants you to be (and sing) the stuff they remember. Mr. Griffith understood this.

[d] Business RF
He took it a step further, though—one that many actors in all mediums are unable to accomplish. He recast himself as the unparalleled attorney Ben Matlock, and had another hit run for the better part of another decade. My grandpa loved that show. He was lukewarm about the old Andy Griffith Show, but he never missed an episode of Matlock. For grandpa, Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock were different, and in significant ways. As for me, I could not help but see a kinship between the folksy widower sheriff and the folksy widower lawyer, and said so to grandpa. He put down the popcorn bowl, furrowed his brow, and considered my statement. His response summed it up well, and it more-or-less said that I was mistaken. What grandpa actually said was "That Matlock...he's tough."

My opinion is that Griffith was complicated, but that he knew well how to avoid being so complicated that he would be merely a one-hit wonder in the television industry. 

Andy Griffith, as his New York Times obituary notes, understood his career and knew the world of television success well. We are also told that he "knew his way around a wine list." That's a little more complicated than I thought. Imagine Andy, Opie, and Aunt Bee sitting at the dinner table, eating the latter's renowned fried chicken and anticipating Opie's favorite, butterscotch pecan pie, for dessert. A bottle of Chateau Pétrus just doesn't quite fit on that checkerboard tablecloth, does it? The world of Mayberry was a fiction, and I learned early on to treat it as such.

So did Andy Griffith (1926-2012), and that might be the key to his longevity in a relentlessly typecasting business.
[e] Complicated RF

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