Television used to portray small towns as tolerant, brimming with life lessons. 'Where have you gone, Barney Fife? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you....'
Growing up in the city, we had three TV networks and a public station we could receive if the wind was blowing the right way, which wasn’t very often.
A confession: I watched entirely too much TV then, but I’m recovering, with good reason. Newton Minow, FCC chair at the time, described the medium as a “vast wasteland” in May, 1961. Profits were coming to rule over quality. I remember hearing about this statement then. Mostly, I’ve come to agree with it.
For years, I didn’t even own a TV. Thanks to the DVD, I can pretty much watch what I want when I want it, without commercials. In our rural area, no one offers a high-speed connection at a reasonable price. Downloads are out of the picture, so to speak.
Two of my favorite programs on DVD live up to TV’s potential to entertain and provoke thought. The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons are, I suppose, imperfect in their approach to rural life. Perhaps they’re saccharine, at least to some people’s taste. Yet, they remain cultural icons for good reason.
The shows are products of two different times in American history, the 1960s and the 1970s. In their own ways, they deal gently with small town family and rural life. Watching them now, with a more critical eye, they contrast sharply with unremarkable shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. I watched these when I was a kid. Now I wonder why: part of the addiction, I guess. There’s nothing enduring or endearing about them. On the other hand, there’s enough to chew on in The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons that they could be used as examples in a course in rural community.
The Andy Griffith Show first aired on CBS at 9:30 p.m. on Monday October 3, 1960. I don’t remember it. The show aired past my bedtime. I began watching it in weekday syndication in summers during the mid-1960s.
The Waltons first aired as a CBS pilot, “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” in December 1971. As a regular series (with significant casting changes) it ran from 8 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, beginning September 14, 1972. I probably watched it first during Christmas break or saw summer reruns, since I was away at college when it started.
Andy Griffith is set in then-contemporary times in fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, in the state’s western Appalachian region. It has some stereotypical characters, such as moonshiners, a town drunk and a mountain family, the Darlings, who play jug band music. There are no black characters, possibly an artifact of those segregated times.
The writers handled stereotypes deftly, without the meanness of making characters seem inferior or stupid. For example, Sam Muggins, a moonshiner, loves his family and is delighted when Sheriff Taylor (Andy Griffith) “arrests” his wife and children so they spend Christmas Eve with him in the jail after he is picked up for having a still. Ben Weaver, a lonely old storekeeper, is chagrined by the treatment accorded the prisoner, but turns out to be kindly after all. There is decent humanity in the characters, tinged with humor and occasional bitter sweetness that bolsters the comedy.
The Waltons is a drama, again with its stereotypes, like the idea of an extended family living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains during the 1930s Depression. The show is built around John Boy (Richard Thomas), an aspiring writer who eventually grows up and leaves Walton’s Mountain for New York City and then World War II. The show’s creator, Earl Hamner, based the series loosely on his own biography, making John Boy a participant observer as narrator and character.
The Walton family is not quite perfect, something that makes the show a bit more realistic, despite the “problem solved” endings of each episode. The children squabble, and the adults do not always agree, part of the dramatic arc of hour-long conflict and resolution.
The show’s central force comes from the undercurrent in two generations of marriages where deeply religious and fundamentalist women live with men who are more spiritually engaged with the land that provides their life. The husbands and fathers don’t disrespect organized religion, but it makes them cautious. They are perhaps more worldly than their wives might like in the post-Prohibition era. For example, they have no problems with “the recipe,” moonshine distilled by the Baldwin sisters, two dotty old spinsters who carry on the tradition of their late father, who was a judge.
Just as significant is the treatment of African Americans. In the 1930s’ segregated Commonwealth of Virginia, blacks in the fictional community are treated with dignity. The show offers lessons about tolerance for people of different races, religious views, strangers and visitors, all growing up in close quarters during tough times.
Tolerance is a common thread in both these shows. Sheriff Taylor could easily have been a tough, stereotypical Southern law officer. Instead, he is easygoing, with a sometimes crafty and even sexist edge that comes with the times. But the character is more than that. He makes mistakes as a single father raising his son, Opie. His Aunt Bea keeps him in line at home.
Sheriff Taylor constantly has to rein in his comically nervous and clumsy deputy, Barney Fife. The sheriff is patient, perhaps more so than at home. He understands the rural community and its people. He is a peacekeeper, seldom carrying a gun. Problems can be solved with understanding and compassion. The threat of violence is reserved in the trunk of the police car or on the wall of the office in the courthouse. Barney’s clumsiness makes guns a foil for humor.
Comedy or drama: Move beyond the stereotypes. The parables of two shows suggest that kindness is good. It needs to be tended. We can learn to accept, respect, and love people who are different in our families and communities.
Accept the happy endings as fantasy? Sure. Still the two shows offer possibilities for the best that rural life has to offer in good times or bad times. Charity and hope, and perhaps faith, abide as stereotypes. All in all, that’s pretty comforting.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.