Mayberry To Millionaires
Both Andy and Regis have gathered families round the TV set, for what-virtue or vice? Before griping about the lack of moral fiber on TV, shouldn't we ask: Are we being shaped by the TV we watch or are shows merely reflecting us? Maybe Opie has a final answer.
by Brian Tighe
The studio audience goes crazy when the guy in the hot seat gets the $64,000 question right on ABC's latest mega-hit Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Host Regis Philbin reminds us that the contestant is only a few correct responses away from a million bucks.
Click. A few channels over on FOX Chuck Woolery waves wads of cash before the money-hungry eyes of everyday primetime gamblers. "Do you feel the need for greed?" he chants.
Click. Back at ABC, NYPD Blue cops come screeching around a corner, lights flashing, sirens blaring. They jump out of their car, screaming expletives at a suspect, who they chase and slam to the ground. Later, in an interrogation room, detectives smack the suspect more, threatening even greater violence unless he admits to the crime.
Now flip a few channels to Nick at Nite or TV Land, a sort of repository for all those shows of the '50s,'60s and '70s-a place where the game show contestants wear suits and smile pretty as they answer questions about Shakespeare or physics, and the No. 1 cop show is about a sheriff (not prone to wear a gun) who outsmarts the crooks and takes them into custody without raising his voice or his hand.
As Opie would say, "Boy, pa, things sure have changed."
And would Opie lie? Not in Mayberry, which is the point. Not many people would disagree that television today is different than it used to be. But are today's racier, sexier shows merely reflecting more of our real values, or shaping them? And what are we to make of shows that seem to appeal to our base instincts of greed and gain when what they promote seems a vice, but their effect seems a virtue?
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? launched that question when an informal CNN.com poll showed Philbin's baby was pulling families together. Never mind that the pull was out of the desire for quick, easy money (because, who doesn't want to be a millionaire?). So when Nielsen Media reported Millionaire was the favorite game show for children ages 2-11 and the 55-and-over set of adults, even critics had to ask: Is it so bad that Americans are examining answers to questions on everything from pop culture to history?
What Would Aunt Bee Say?
She might not get past a comparison of today's TV with yesterday's simple streets-and lessons-of Mayberry, N.C. Could you blame her? Sheriff Andy Taylor, Deputy Barney Fife and the Mayberry host served up simple, neat lessons on life with lots of laughs for eight years. But when love bloomed between Barney and Thelma Lou, you never saw an on-screen kiss, much less a steamy love scene at the courthouse. (In fact, Barney and Thelma Lou rarely even held hands on screen!) And when a new kid in school told Opie that only suckers worked for allowance, Andy stepped in to teach his son a work ethic-that earning money for work was more fulfilling than having someone just hand it to you.
Anyone over at Greed listening?
Right, because that was TV then, in its infancy. Now you're more likely to find Jennifer Lopez "dressed" in a sheer, frontal-opened robe at the Grammys, or bikini-clad women and bare-chested men parading the beach that they lifeguard on Baywatch. Or you'll see the bloodied on ER, the beat up on NYPD Blue or Law & Order, the sexually-active singles on Friends, and a wide variety of movies of the week that are a far cry from what Andy and the gang experienced in Mayberry-or even Ricky and Lucy who, incidentally, slept in separate beds the entire run of I Love Lucy.
As Gomer Pyle would say, "Schazaam!"
For a society seemingly hooked on television, is this really what we want? The half-naked, the abuse and curse fests, and the ridiculous taunts for quick and easy money?
You would think so by the statistics from Sam Augusta, communications officer for TV-Free America. Augusta says the television is on for seven hours and 12 minutes, with the average couch-dweller watching for three hours and 46 minutes each week. And most popular are the very shows that might have made Barney Fife exclaim, "Nip it! Nip it in the bud." [The Grammy Awards show, NYPD Blue, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? rated on top in recent weeks, according to Nielsen Media Services.]
To some that goes down harder than one of Aunt Bee's prized pickles.
Michelle Singeltary, a TV critic for The Washington Post is one of those wincing. "I'm just sitting on my sofa, letting a television show lure me into believing the almost impossible," she muses about one Millionaire episode-"the impossible that luck and a head full of trivia will bring me a million dollars. All that dreaming makes me feel lousy. Disappointed. Dissatisfied. Ungrateful."
But now that you've tasted that sour pickle, even Singletary says you have to ask: Are we what we watch? Do the shows we watch play a role in shaping our values and virtues, or are they merely a reflection of reality? And what's the effect, anyway, of hour after hour watching people trying to make quick dough, simulate sex on the screen and perpetrate uncountable acts of violence?
In One Eyeball & Out
To Steve Beverly, a broadcasting professor at Union University which is a Christian college in Jackson, Tenn., the answers are simple: "I don't think you can help but be [impacted] by the time you spend watching TV. Even in the bounds of a Christian university, I see this happening with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are from Christian homes."
He uses his students' love for the sitcom Friends as an example. The show threatens their moral fiber, according to Beverly, because it portrays sex as a casual issue that frequently happens outside of marriage and even mocks the institution of marriage itself. And the real tragedy is even the most conscientious Christian doesn't realize what's happening, he says: "Because you're entertained by it, [you] don't always realize what you're laughing at." The virtues, or lack of them, gradually seep into [your life]. The effect is desensization, and the ultimate consequence? Television viewers gradually changing their behavior to mirror what they see on their favorite programs.
|"If Friends is a barometer of a show that in five to seven years from now will be deemed mild, it's frightening to think what it's going to be like for my kids," Beverly said. "If we don't have more sense of shame we don't have much more civilization left."|
To fight that Beverly challenges his students: "Is this the kind of value you want to pass on in 8-10 years when you have kids?" He senses that even when most students say "no," they continue their Friends-fest anyway.
That distresses Robert DeMoss Jr., author of 21 Days to Better Family Entertainment, (Zondervan) who has studied the habits of TV watchers in his Franklin, Tenn. But it's not just the TV-watching habits of youths that concern him. In his studies at church, across the board, he reports, "People will say TV hasn't had a positive impact on their faith, but when I say 'list the negative effects its had on your faith,' the list is long. And yet do they turn it off? No."
The effects, DeMoss claims, range from increased levels of stress caused by particular shows to a general acceptance of foul language, promiscuous sexual habits, and diminished respect for people. The tolerance is what worries DeMoss most.
He would tell you to turn off the set, rather than spend an hour watching Jennifer Lopez or concentrating on Greed. But is TV a complete wasteland?
No, Beverly says. Even using the greedy game shows as an example, he points out: "There hasn't been one profanity uttered on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Not one suggestive question." And isn't there something to be said for the positive value of rewarding people for their intelligence, or for the show itself gathering families together again-even if it is to sit in front of the tube?
Even the bad behavior reflected on TV can be turned into a good discussion, Beverly adds, especially with children, who are still forming their sense for discernment. You can always point to disturbing behavior as a way of starting conversation about higher ways of living, he said: "Talk to your children, and say 'OK, this is fiction. These are not the life and the values we teach.' Then let [your children] answer the question, 'What alternatives do we have to this?' "
Even the oft-lambasted NYPD Blue can give adults a lesson about good guys catching bad guys, and while showing life's seamier side can explore topics like faith, forgiveness and responsibility. For example, during a few memorable episodes of NYPD Blue Detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, searched for God and faith when confronted with the death of his son, and also another detective.
But DeMoss would be quick to add that on that same program, characters regularly have multiple sex partners outside of marriage (all under the guise of romance), and you'd have to sit through offensive language and view partial nudity along the way.
"We don't turn this thing off," he laments. "We're just happily stuck in a rut. It's laziness on our part. We [don't say with our behavior] 'this doesn't line up with what we believe' or 'we wish we had something else.' That's one reason why the executives in Hollywood continue to dish out this stuff. They just don't have the mandate from viewers to produce much of anything else."
Andy To The Rescue
That may explain the return to Mayberry, according to Bill Hill, who researches popular culture as chairman of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. After all you can tune into Andy's words of wisdom and Aunt Bee's warmth any day of the week on cable TV, and now even Bible curriculum is being shaped around the lessons we can learn from our favorite small town sheriff (and single dad), his family and community.
"The [Andy Griffith] show always satisfied this eternal quest for the good prevailing," Hill tells his classes on why these simple shows from simpler times appeal to our sense of what's right in the world.
For instance, the episode "Rafe Hollister Sings," centers on a lesson about standing up under peer pressure and remaining tolerant of others. In this episode, the Mayberry gang overhears Hollister, an uncouth farmer from the hills, singing to himself in a deep, rich voice in practice to represent Mayberry in a nearby competition. Worried about how they will look to others, Andy and crew attempt to give the rumpled Hollister a makeover in time for the sound off. Only things go increasingly downhill before Andy realizes it isn't important how Hollister looks, but how he sounds. The farmer, clad in his dirty overalls, sings beautifully at the competition and brings tears to the eyes of those in the audience.
It's the sort of lesson guys like Joey Fann of Huntsville, Ala., have been bringing to Bible study for years. Fann, an engineer and avid friend of life in Mayberry, began using Andy and his pals to teach moral lessons in the early '90s. He's since begun and continued to operate a Web site, called barneyfife.com, that focuses on teaching virtue via The Andy Griffith Show and the Bible.
People relate to the sagas of Andy, Barney, Aunt Bee and Opie, Fann says, like a modern day parable. "The situation on screen reminds [people] of a situation in their own life and reflecting on how we have choices. We can choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing."
"We found it just an excellent way for conveying those moral principles," adds Pat Allison, a preacher at Bel-Aire Church of Christ in Tullahoma, Tenn., where Fann once attended and got the Mayberry Bible study program rolling. "A lot of the episodes dealt with right and wrong. Right and wrong was very clearly defined in the era of the late '50s and early '60s."
But must we go back to the '60s to be like Andy and the good people of Mayberry?
It might not hurt in terms of watching these clean retro shows, suggests Beverly: "I do believe there is still an audience who is looking for clean, well produced entertainment."
Even Washington Post critic Singletary would agree if it means watching an episode of Andy's antics versus Greed or Millionaire. "Who doesn't want to be a millionaire?" she wrote in a recent column. "We all do. But for most of us, wealth happens one day at a time."
"Yes," even Andy might say before he went whistling toward the lake or into Sunday morning church service, "sure sounds good to me."
Brian Tighe, an associate editor of iBelieve.com, based in the Grand Rapids, Mich., office, admits to having seen every episode of The Andy Griffith Show at least four times. He grew up head over heels in love with Ellie Walker the lady druggist.