T he recent death of Andy Griffith, best known for his portrayal of small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor in “The Andy Griffith Show,” reminded us of the way that small towns have been portrayed in American popular culture over the years. As writer Neil Genzlinger pointed out in an appreciation of Griffith in The New York Times, the debut of “The Andy Griffith Show” in 1960 occurred as the reputation of small-town life was at a low ebb, especially in the South. Small Southern communities were gaining attention as hotbeds of racism and backwardness.
The mythical town of Mayberry, N.C., in “The Andy Griffith Show” offered a different view. It was a place where residents respected each other as an extended family.
Was Mayberry too good to be true? Probably so. The truth is that small towns are neither entirely good nor uniformly bad. They all have their share of generosity and darkness.
Given that reality, Mayberry was an obviously idealized place. But “The Andy Griffith Show” made us want to live in a place as good as Mayberry. In that sense, the show called us to our highest aspirations.
Aspirational television — shows about heroes we might like to be — isn’t the fashion on the tube these days. The defining genre seems to be “reality” shows in which characters curse and connive against their neighbors, then do any number of things to compromise their dignity. We don’t want to be like these characters. We watch them to mock, not praise.
The death of Andy Griffith at 86 is a loss for Americans, but it reminds us of an even larger absence. Where is the television entertainment that speaks to the better angels of our nature?
It’s still there, we know. But the kind of nobility practiced by Sheriff Andy Taylor isn’t as common on television as it used to be.
We’re all the poorer as a result.