Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Gospel of Andy Griffith

The story -- which I have heard often enough from reputable enough people to believe -- is that "The Andy Griffith Show" dominates the ratings at 5:30 on weekday afternoons where I live. As a matter of fact, again as the story goes, a competing station once paid a vast sum to get rights to the Oprah Winfrey show when she was at her nation-dominating height to run against Andy ... and lost. To this day, at 5:30 pm in the Roanoke-Lynchburg television market, you will hear with the certainty of the sun rising and the tide shifting the whistling theme of "The Andy Griffith Show."

It's one of a handful of anecdotes I always tell newly arrived people moving to the area. (Another is that Roanoke once had a Hooters restaurant ... which went out of business. It wasn't put out of business, it just didn't get enough customers.*) I tell these in order to help people understand in a more visceral (and hopefully sympathetic) way the culture of the area. Call it my gentler version of The Hillbilly Elegy.

But what is it about Andy that holds such rock hard appeal? You would think that the viewership would age out. (The station only airs the early black-and-white episodes, with Goober and Gomer Pyle appearing fairly late. I was once told there are only 107** of them, which run in sequence, and then the line up begins again.) How could anyone born in the 1990s or even 1980s find anything in the small town of Mayberry circa 1961: before the Kennedy assassination and the upheaval of the 60s, before rap and the internet. How dull and figuratively as well as literally colorless it must seem to them, wouldn't you think?

The Word of the Lord

In the Catholic Mass (as in most Christian services), there are rituals of gathering and prayers, and then readings from the Bible: the old Testament, some from the later books (eg: letters from Paul), and finally the Gospel.

The priest takes up the usually ornate copy of the New Testament, which has been on display on the altar, and shows it to the congregation, first to one side, then the other, before walking to the ambo and setting it down to read.

I enjoy that, which to me is a very tangible connection to the 2,000-year history of the Church and its rituals, a remnant of the time when most of the congregation couldn't read and that New Testament was probably one of only a handful of actual books in the community. "This," the priest seems to say with his gesture, "is the real deal. See, right here, I have the book with the writings we have all gathered to hear."

The readings are on a regular cycle (three-year for Sundays and two-year for weekday Mass), so if you're a frequent churchgoer, they're aren't going to be a lot of surprises. Then why bother with all the hocus-pocus and recitation? Simple: to re-enforce the common beliefs and values that bring that community together.

As you've probably already realized, I think The Andy Griffith Show serves a similar function here in Southwest Virginia. It's a vision of an idealized middle south (fictional Mayberry is in the mountains just over the NC border; nearby Mount Airy claims to be the town it's based on), a place where an amiable sheriff rarely feels the need to carry his gun, community members settle differences eventually, and even violent crime is more acting out than a real danger. It's a place where everyone has a role which he or she seems to understand and have somehow organically settled into, where assisting one's neighbor is assumed, and even when someone is insufferable (usually Barney Fife), he is politely tolerated and handled in a way to not hurt his feelings.

While Big City types occasionally pass through (sometimes as criminals, sometimes as government officials or state police), the are briefly dealt with and sent on their way or embraced until their more obnoxious characteristics are smothered and they come to appreciate the True Way of Mayberry.

I can, at this moment, imagine a Marxist academic recoiling in his dashiki-covered desk chair as he does a spit take with the organic, free market chai he (although he prefers some other pronoun, no doubt) just put to his lips. What I have described to this person is the very vision of entrapping horror, a gray flannel world dominated by the white patriocracy, an intellectual and in some cases literal prison without bars, more reminiscent of a dystopian nightmare than an ideal town.

"Be seeing you, Andy."

But that is both to see my point and miss it. Unlike you, professor, these people live by the calming rules that smoothed out the rough edges of life. There was crime and dissension and conflict, but it was the crisis of a family, not the signs of a sick society. You knew where the problem was because you all knew the rules of interaction and behavior, and those rules outlined a path to resolution.

In today's world, the world where our professor would enrage himself over the bigoted, misogynistic, stultifying white male privilege of Mayberry, those foundations shift and sink. It's okay, the Andy viewers ask, to dismiss the faith of evangelicals, but not Muslims? The Other must be welcomed, but members of the tribe shunned? And I have to be careful which pronoun I use?!

Better to flee, even if only for thirty minutes, back to a world where stability was sure and seemed infinite and the rules were the ones I was taught by my grandma.


* However, a new consortium is working on bringing several new Hooters to the area. Perhaps they need to spend some time, while they're up to that, watching Andy.

** Wikipedia says there are 159 black and white episodes (Seasons 1 through 5)

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