Saturday, March 04, 2006

I have a feeling we're not in Mayberry anymore

The news of Don Knott's death released Terry Teachout's inner curmudgeon. I like Terry's inner curmudgeon. He's so much more gentlemanly and more cultured than my inner curmudgeon. But like my inner curmudgeon and everybody else's curmudgeon, inner and outer, the inner Teachout curmudgeon has a bad memory. He remembers a world that never existed. He's also myopic and the world as it is comes to him all fuzzy. He can only see a thing clearly when he has his nose pressed right up against it, a vantage point that makes it impossible to see very much of anything else. Which is a way of saying curmudgeons are good at not being able to see the forest for the trees.

Terry writes nostalgically about The Andy Griffith Show:

When I was young, everybody I knew watched The Andy Griffith Show. Today there are no TV shows that “everybody” watches, and no movies that everyone has seen. Indeed, the American film industry is about to devote its annual prime-time infomercial to celebrating five movies that most Americans haven’t seen, don’t plan to see, and couldn’t even if they wanted to (at least not until they come out on DVD).

You know your inner curmudgeon's on the loose when you start using the words "everybody I knew/know" interchangeably with "everybody."

I do it all the time.

Back when Terry was young everybody he knew might have watched Andy Griffith, but everybody didn't because there was no cable, no satellite, no VCRs, no Netflix, and no good television reception in many parts of the country, especially in a lot of towns very much like Mayberry. Everybody back then meant everybody with a TV set who happened to have it turned on on whatever night the Andy Griffith Show was on, which of course was not everybody, just more people with TV sets than people with TV sets who watched something else on that night. That everybody just happened to include everybody Terry knew, which, since he grew up in a small town, and was a little kid at the time, was not very many people.

The curmudgeon's at work again, making the case that the world in its golden age, and the world as it will be when Arthur returns from Avalon, comprises only people who think and act like the curmudgeon.

The national audience, of which Terry and his family and friends were a minute part, was not everybody in America It was tens of millions of Americans.

Which was the audience for Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, and MASH a decade later.

The audience for Cheers and The Cosby Show a decade after that.

The audience for Seinfeld and Friends in the 90s.

The audience for American Idol now. Terry is disdainful of American Idol in his post, and I'm with him there, but the fact is that it is this generation's Ed Sullivan Show. Nobody in Terry's inner curmudgeon's definition of "everybody" may watch it, but an awful lot of people who together make up a statistically more realistic approximation of everybody do and that audience includes lots and lots of little kids who will no doubt grow up to be curmudgeonly in their turn and lament the passing of a time when everybody they knew watched shows like American Idol.

Terry's curmudgeon says something else Terry himself probably knows doesn't hold water because it doesn't take into account how Hollywood and the television industry work: network would now think of giving the green light to a low-keyed sitcom about life in a more or less idyllic southern town.

Sure they would, if the network execs could somehow be convinced that it would be a hit.

You could say something similar about every hit TV show of the last 60 years.

No network now would think of green lighting a comedy set in field hospital in Korea during the war.

No network would think of green lighting a sitcom about a bunch of beerswilling losers who sit around a Boston bar all day...and did I tell you that there's this know it all mailman...?

No network would think of greenlighting a sitcom about four shallow, abrasive, selfish New York City Jews who talk endlessly about nothing.

The truth in these assertions is that it's a wonder any show made it on the air. Network execs are cautious to the point of cowardice when making decisions because so much money is at stake. They aren't inclined to green light anything they don't think will be an immediate hit and the way they decide a show's going to be a hit is if it features a bankable star or if it comes from a producer with an excellent track record.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas.

Besides this, if there doesn't happen to be anything like Mayberry on TV at the moment, there have been at least two shows in the last couple of decades that owed a lot to the Andy Griffith Show directly, Northern Exposure and Evening Shade.

And there have been shows since those two that, inspired by them, owe a lot indirectly to Andy Griffith, including Ed and several of the current crop of WB hits like Everwood. I'm not kidding, but I'll have to make the case in another post.

It's easy to pick on someone's inner curmudgeon. Shooting ducks in a barrel and I'm generally against the exercise because it's like sticking a big "Kick Me" sign on my own back. But there's something at work in Terry's post I can't let pass.

Like I said, I have my own inner curmudgeon---he edits this webpage and writes most of the posts---so I am sympathetic to Terry's. There's a difference between the two curmudgeon's though. Mine is a disgruntled Liberal, and Terry's is a grumpy conservative---lower case c conservative---who writes for the Wall Street Journal, which gives him a large readership of capital C Conservatives. Most capital C Conservatives these days aren't conservatives at all, they're Right Wing Reactionaries, and a couple things Terry wrote play into the prejudices and self-incited outrage of Right Wing culture critics.

The first is in his assertion that the networks would pass on a contemporary version of The Andy Griffith Show, "a low-keyed sitcom about life in a more or less idyllic southern town..." I don't think Terry intended it but it's not hard to read into that the idea that the reason those Hollywood types wouldn't greenlight such a show is that they are contemptuous of the South, small towns, and the values the people who live in the South and small towns stand for.

Hollywood types hate America, you know. (See Wolcott.)

The other thing Terry says that the Right Wing kulturkampfers have been pushing is that the current crop of Oscar nominees are unpopular, by which the Right Wingers (not Terry) mean out of the mainstream---anti-American and anti-virtue.

They mean Brokeback Mountain more than any of the others.

It is kind of a fluke year. Crash, Capote, and Good Night, and Good Luck are not atypical Oscar nominees. Small, independent, quirky, talky, journalistic movies have been nominated for Oscars in the past. What's fluky is that three small, independent, quirky, talky, journalistic movies have been nominated at the same time.

But Brokeback Mountain isn't as Terry suggests a movie that most Americans haven't seen or won't see, not compared to other hit movies (and accepting the idea that all of America sees every hit movie, which isn't even true of the highest grossing movies of all time, but it's one of those lazy generalizations that make conversation easier). Brokeback Mountain is a definite box office hit. It's already grossed over 75 million dollars. That's not in the ballpark with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (around 289 million) or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (288 million), but how many of the people who saw those two movies were grownups and how many who've seen Brokeback are kids? Estimate, conservatively, that for every adult who saw Potter and Narnia there were two kids, and then count only the tickets sold to adults for each movie and Brokeback is in the running.

It is a popular movie as movies go then.

Munich has grossed 46 million. Modest. I suspect, though, that it hasn't benefited from the phenomenon that makes modest hits mega-hits---repeat customers. Good as it may be, I doubt very many people come out of the theater saying to each other, Let's see that one again!

Being an intelligent, cultured, and honest critic, Terry isn't inclined to make too much out of his own nostalgia. He recognizes the temptation to overly idealize the past and tries to hedge:

None of this is good or bad, merely different, but for a person born in 1956—even one who has kept a fairly close eye on postmodern culture—it’s definitely disorienting.

But Terry's a conservative, not a Conservative---that is, not a Right Winger---and nostalgia for an overly-idealized past is a touchstone for Right Wing cultural criticism. For Right Wing politics, generally.



Mayberry is a fantasy of Southern small town life in the 1950s, and "everybody" watching in the 1960s knew it. Life in the real Mayberrys was not so idyllic.

That was in 1964, back when the public schools in my hometown were still segregated, two decades after a black man was dragged from our city jail, hauled through the streets at the end of a rope and set afire.

That's Terry again, writing about the small town he grew up in, in a year when The Andy Griffith Show was on the air and "everybody" was watching it.

You know, maybe the reason the networks wouldn't greenlight a new version of Mayberry is that they couldn't bring themselves to produce a show that denied reality to such an extent, they'd gag on the idea of a show that presented, as Tom Watson describes, "the fake perfection of small-time Southern life in the 60s, devoid of civil rights battles and racial tension..."

There was no racial tension in Mayberry because there were no black people.

There is no homophobia in the Right Wingers' idyllic Wild West because there are no gay people.

What they hate about Brokeback Mountain, and Crash, and Capote, and Good Night, and Good Luck is that none of them are set in Mayberry.

They're set in America.


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