As America grows more and more divided it seems we can’t even agree on meaningless pop culture. Star Wars is anti-racism and fascism, making it anti-Trump. One Captain America is black (#blacklivesmatter) and the other is a semi-Nazi (#hailhydra). Beyonce supports the Black Panthers and Kanye West had a meeting with President Trump. The 2017 movie awards season was a battle between black, gay Moonlight and mainsplainy, jazz appropriating La La Land. One of the more interesting ideas in La La Land is the idea of moving forward by looking backward. It’s an experimental indie film inspired by Gene Kelly-esque old Hollywood musicals in which John Legend asks Ryan Gosling “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”
In the spirit of progressive conservatism I propose looking at current events through a nostalgic lens, and there’s nothing more nostalgic than The Andy Griffith Show. It’s a series made in the 1960’s that longs for the 1930’s. Set in rustic Mayberry, North Carolina it is perhaps the single most beloved representation of “traditional, small town, American values.” That may sound like a Republican fantasy but it’s worth noting that the titular star was decidedly liberal. Andy Griffith supported Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and backed several Democrats in North Carolina, home to both Griffith and his most famous character, Sheriff Andy Taylor. Regardless of Griffith’s decidedly left-leaning politics his show is still a staple in even the deepest scarlet areas of the reddish-purple state.
Of course, The Andy Griffith Show wasn’t just a local cult favorite. Not a single season ranked outside of the top ten in the Nielsen ratings, Griffith’s co-star Don Knotts won five Emmys for his role as Deputy Barney Fife, and the name Mayberry remains shorthand for small town life to this day. That success can be attributed to several factors. For one, it’s a very funny show. Actors like Knotts, Jim Nabors, and George Lindsey had a terrific talent for broad buffoonish slapstick grounded in endearing honesty and they played off of Griffith perfectly, their wide grinned straight man serving as a more likable Zeppo Marx. The writing and acting was among the best of its era and the single-camera format made it more visually appealing than most.
On a larger scale, it might be worth considering the context of the times. The 1960s were perhaps the most tempestuous era in recent American history, up until now at least. The battles over the rights of women and minorities reached startling new heights, the war in Vietnam raged on to much controversy at home, the ongoing Cold War was a cause of fear but also pushed technology to one of the greatest achievements in human history; American astronauts walking on the moon. Perhaps, in the midst of all this turmoil America needed a stable, unflinchingly moral influence, so they turned to the steadfast wisdom of Andy Taylor.
There may not be a single TV show before or since better known for featuring moral lessons that was successful because of it. Shows like Full House thirty years later were known for “very special episodes” that were melodramatic, unfunny and cheesy, but Andy Griffith taught right from wrong in a sincere, natural way without losing a bit of humor. Star Trek, which began when TAGS was in its penultimate season, asked plenty or high concept questions of moral philosophy but offered few answers that affect real people. Sheriff Taylor dealt almost exclusively with the problems faced by real people, or at least exaggerated fictional characters who were real-people-adjacent, and almost no Klingons. It was common for Andy to solve a dispute between two Mayberrians, or to help a friend with his relationship problems, or to introduce his young son Opie to the ways of the world. Of course, Andy wasn’t perfect. When he stepped out of line he could often count on Opie, Aunt Bee or his girlfriend, either Ellie or Helen depending on the season, to show him the error of his ways. Despite all its faults, Mayberry is an inherently decent place even when Andy is in the wrong.
That’s why I am going to watch every episode of The Andy Griffith Show, extract a moral lesson from it, and apply that lesson to a current political or social issue. Each week I will write a post consisting of four sections: a plot recap, various trivia and observations, a description of a relevant issue, and my own theory of how Andy would feel and react towards the issue.
As previously mentioned, part of the show’s success may have come from offering an escape from politics. For that reason, some may criticize me for politicizing The Andy Griffith Show. I counter that The Andy Griffith Show has already been politicized. Vague nostalgia for a better time drives much of conservative politics. I’m sure that many Trump voters imagined Mayberry when the now President said “make America great again” in his campaign. In the words of David Rowe, the current Trump-supporting mayor of Griffith’s hometown and the supposed inspiration for Mayberry, “We try to live the good old days, but it’s hard.” In a more literal way, The Andy Griffith Show was politicized by Griffith himself in a promotional video for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign on funnyordie.com. Most importantly, my intention is not to politicize the morality of The Andy Griffith Show at all but to use The Andy Griffith Show to moralize politics.
If I’m going to go forward with this intention, I have to address some of the pitfalls of the show. First, there’s the lack of diversity. I’m not aware of a single character that wasn’t a white Christian. (Although, I hold that Jack Dodson who played Howard Sprague bore a striking resemblance to Earle Hyman of The Cosby Show, and I’m not entirely convinced they’re not the same person.) That level of uniformity simply does not realistically represent any time or place in American history. Second, there’s Andy’s constant misuse of his authority. In his defense, when he puts someone in jail on a trumped up or even nonexistent charge he’s well intentioned and the prisoners tend to be pretty forgiving about it, but in the real world that kind of thing is frowned upon.
I truly believe that The Andy Griffith Show, by and large, sets a reliable standard for morality. The fact that its setting is wholly mythical does not weaken its lessons any more than the philosophical questions raised by and to Jim Kirk are invalidated by their being asked on far off planets. My greatest hope is that I can shine a light on a stable, universal moral influence, in turn improving the morality of myself and others. Put simply, I want to ask “What would Andy Taylor do?”