Once upon a time, Frank Rich was a brilliant TV critic. Now he’s a brilliant, full-fledged social/political observer and just about the smartest guy we know. (Except maybe for Stephen Colbert?) Here, he combines both his obsessions:
by Frank Rich
Andy Griffith was a genial and gifted character actor, but when he died on Independence Day eve, you’d have thought we’d lost a Founding Father, not a television star whose last long-running series, the vanilla legal drama Matlock, expired in 1995. The public tributes to Griffith were over-the-top in a way his acting never was, spreading treacle from the evening newscasts to the front page of the New York Times.
It was as if the nation were mourning its own demise. To commentators in the liberal media, Griffith’s signature television role, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina, was “one of the last links to another, simpler time” (the Washington Post). On the right, the sermonizers quickly moved past an inconvenient fact (Griffith made a spot endorsing Obamacare in 2010) to deify Sheriff Taylor for embodying “a time when television was cleaner and simpler” and for giving “millions of Americans the feeling the country stood for all the right things” (National Review). Among those “right” things was the fictional Mayberry’s form of governance, which, in the ideological take of the Daily Caller, demonstrated that “common sense and local control work better than bureaucracy or top-down management.”
In reality, The Andy Griffith Show didn’t transcend the deep divides of its time. It merely ignored them. “Local control” of Mayberry saw to it that this southern town would remain lily-white for all eight years of its fictive existence rather than submit to any civil-rights laws that would require the federal government’s “top-down management” to enforce. Nor was television always so simple back then. Just seven months before The Andy Griffith Show’s 1960 debut on CBS, the same network broadcast an episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which the placid all-American denizens of an (all-white) suburban enclave turn into a bloodthirsty mob hunting down any aliens in human camouflage that might have infiltrated the neighborhood. As the show’s creator and narrator, Rod Serling, makes clear in his parable’s concluding homily (“Prejudices can kill …”), the hovering aliens who threatened to drive Americans to civil unrest and self-destruction at the dawn of the Kennedy era were not necessarily from outer space.
The wave of nostalgia for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and for the vanished halcyon America it supposedly enshrined says more about the frazzled state of America in 2012 and our congenital historical amnesia than it does about the reality of America in 1960.
Read it all (and we mean all; this sucker is lo-ong)