I’ve written a lot about the clumsy, painful ways that America’s national culture thinks about rural life. It often amounts to a sort of minstrel show, with small-town characters translated into buffoonish caricatures.
The list of these shameful parodies is long, reaching an all-time low with Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life, which aired from 2003 through 2007.
From the Beverly Hillbillies to Hee-Haw to Green Acres, an entire genre of television has grown up around the notion that people living outside of urban America are rubes, hicks, and goofballs.
Into that troubled media landscape came the Andy Griffith show, which aired from 1960 to 1968, and then lived on in syndication. I grew up watching the black-and-white program after school in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Griffith, who passed away this week, played the golden hearted, but often inadequate or uncertain father and sheriff. He was a single parent in an age when single parents weren’t common in television.
The show wasn’t immune to the tropes of the genre. Things could get pretty silly, with plenty of small town slapstick and corn-pone hijinks.
But this was the 19060s and the Andy Griffith Show tackled some pretty compelling issues, ranging from the growing independence of women in small town life, to rural poverty, to the growing influence of urban culture.
At one point, Opie even joins a rock and roll band!
While sitting around Floyd’s barber shop, the men of Mayberry chewed over everything from the Cold War to the space race.
Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t To Kill A Mockingbird. The show, which was set in the South during the Civil Rights era, paid little attention to the crisis of race in America.
But the portrayal of rural life was, with rare exceptions, sympathetic and loving. Yes, Mayberry was a romanticized place. But it had recognizable textures, capturing real nuances of the actual experience of small towns.
There is small-minded Babbitry, but there is also neighborliness, tradition, and a human pace.
And certainly when compared with the less savory portraits of non-urban culture, it transcended the genre.
The Andy Griffith show was, also, often simply a joy to watch. I wish that more Americans these days had an entry point, a window into our way of life, as humorous, as warm and as cleverly written.