Long Live Andy of Mayberry!
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
...in reruns, of ourse.
So I realize I've been pretty short on pop culture commentary lately. It's not that I haven't seen the new Wes Anderson movie and don't have opinions about it. I'm just not sure yet whether it's mainly edifying and encouraging—a testimony to the America of 1965, just before everything got unhinged and screwed up—or a self-indulgent fantasy for rich and pseudo-sophisticated white people. I'm talking about the type of people (like me) who get suckered time and again by the mixture of kindness and suffering that IS Bill Murray's face. I just saw Lost in Translation again, and it sort of hit me that there's very little to that admittedly very touching and artsy movie beyond Bill's face. The movie's big joke: What's lost in translation is Bill's face. The Japanese don't get it. It does nothing for them.
I've also been silent about the excellent season of Mad Men that recently concluded. The show got way theoretical—about domination, commodification, and all that—and way psychological and so less sociological about the Sixties. It could be that I have to watch the season in one sitting before I can be sure what was really going with Don especially.
Here's something that was undeniably good about the Sixties that we can still enjoy: The Andy Griffith Show. It's even a hot topic, with Griffiths' very recent death.
There were three situation comedies that voluntarily ended production while being no. 1 in popularity: The Lucy Show, Andy Griffith and Seinfeld. In terms of excellence and influence, they really were the three best shows. Each left them, as Seinfeld's George said, wanting more.
Andy Griffith is the only one of the three shows that was serious and edifying, that attempted to present real lives in a particular time and place. It was a distinctively Southern show.
In the show's first season, Griffith, a mediocre comedian, continued in the annoying country bumpkin mode. Beginning in the second season, he morphed into a kind of ordinary guy Atticus Finch, the magnanimous man saving the people of Mayberry from their ordinary idiocy and hustlers and such from out of town. Andy got his job done without a gun or risking anyone's life. The virtual absence of violence (even from the menacing Ernest T. Bass), someone might say, made the show not so Southern.
Andy, in fact, was in some ways a better man than the Stoic Atticus. He didn't have the money or learning or breeding to be a gentleman. But his manners were perfect without being condescending. He was classy while being classless—while being as blind as a man can be to distinctions based on class.
The show highlighted one part of Southern life at the expense of others. It was about the godness of life felt when not obsessed with productivity, ambition, and even lust. It was about the goodness felt while being at home on the front porch pickin' and veggin' after a big Sunday dinner right after church. It's about the goodness felt by people with character, with a relatively clear sense of who they are and what they're supposed to do.
Although the interlopers who showed up from time to time had to be expelled to keep Mayberry from being corrupted, the town wasn't Eden. It was full of pretty lonely misfits who didn't have what it takes to get married or reproduce. Displays of character on the show were about people living in dignity and making the best of their unpromising circumstances. From this view, the most memorable character was Aunt Bee, who worked hard to keep her life from being ridiculous. Next of course was Opie, who was quite a manly little kid despite being only average in sports and the very opposite of a bully. Barney's dignity was too often a gift of Andy's generous deceptions for him to be that memorable a character, although he was hilarious. The town's only intellectual was the curiously touching loser Howard Sprague.
Why were there no black people on the show? Because slavery and racism are the big original sins that so often overwhelmed what's good about the South. Mayberry is full of sinners, but the sins aren't that big. There are no black people for close to the same reason that there are no really rich people or desperately poor people. The show ain't about race and class in the sociologist's sense in order that it can be more clearly about class, family, and friendship in the morally dignified sense.
The show is about gender to some extent. That can't be avoided. And we see Aunt Bee progress as the Sixties progress. She asserts her individual rights a bit, gets involved in the political life of the community, and attracts a better class of suitor.
The names Opie and Aunt Bee have penetrated deeply into the popular culture with a combination of admiration and contempt. Black people use them a lot when referring to naive and very pale white people. When a place is called Mayberry, though, you can't help but mean too good to be true. Nobody ever called the lives displayed on Lucy or Seinfeld too good to be true.
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