Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sheriff Taylor Has Left the Building

In a way, it was almost kinda fitting that Andy Griffith passed away today.

Fourth of July Eve.

You can't get much more down-home, apple pie, small town, star-spangled aw-shucks all-American goodness than Sheriff Andy Taylor.  He wouldn't want to ruin our Fourth of July by dying on one.  But on the day before?  If anyone deserves the solemn respect that dying the day before our nation's birthday earns a person, it's Griffith.

He may not have been much of an actor, even though he starred in several highly-popular TV shows.  You get the sense watching him as either a small-town sheriff or an old-fashioned lawyer that Griffith wasn't so much acting as he was expressing extensions of his warm yet no-nonsense personality in roles closely related to his love of fairness, simple pleasures, and quiet dignity.

His characters may have been the stars of their shows, but they were hardly the most interesting or vocal.  Barney Fife, played by the rubber-faced Don Knotts, always got all the good lines.  And in Matlock, Griffith's frumpy pseudo-seersucker suit was almost as recognizable as the man who wore it.

During the 1960's, when Griffith's signature show first aired, white middle-class American society was being torn asunder by a war nobody understood, a sexual revolution nobody understood, suburbanization everybody misunderstood, and a materialism gone into warp drive that, all combined, made what was supposed to be the best years America had ever experienced disturbing and confusing.  And then Americans went home at night and watched someone as down-home and unpretentious as Sheriff Taylor, dispensing wisdom and morality in a way that made people reminisce about their own grandparents' generation decades before.

We're still fancifully idealizing our grandparents' generation today when we watch shows from the Mayberry franchise.  Only our grandparents likely were the middle-aged parents of the 1960's, watching Griffith from the strangely sterile modernist living rooms of tract-home suburbia, yearning even then for a simpler time that we assume existed just a generation ago.  Yet when we snap out of it, we know that the world Griffith spins for us on each of his shows is as fake as the dusty sets of those perfectly-manicured streets on back lots in Hollywood.  And for the social conservatives who yearn for the yesteryear Griffith's memory embodies, seeing him on TV a couple of years ago touting the virtues of Obamacare must have been a bizarre shock.

News reports out of North Carolina, where Griffith died this morning at age 86, state that his family has already laid him to rest on his farm.  No fuss, no spectacle.  Isn't that just like Sheriff Taylor?  And speaking of news media, it took CNN until this afternoon to post his passing on their home page, while other websites had been mourning his death for hours.  Was that further proof on CNN's part of their own slide into obsolescence, or their increasing intolerance of public people like Griffith who wear their ethics on their sleeve?

After all, isn't Griffith's death more newsworthy than Anderson Cooper's sexual orientation?  Tom Cruise and Scientology?  The "Buxom Bandit?"  Syria's network of torture chambers?

Good grief - and they thought the 60's were a time of turmoil in America.  No wonder news of Griffith's passing today drew a lot of media attention, as we fans of what we think was a purer epoch of Americana never tire of reminiscing about the good old days.

No, they weren't as good as we remember them to have been, were they?  But that's part of what makes Griffith's Mayberry resonate with us.  He captured what America could have been - and indeed, could be - if more of us were more like his characters.

Rest in peace, Andy.

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