From the Associated Press’ Don Knotts obituary:
The show [The Andy Griffith Show] was on the air from 1960 to 1968, and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series to bow out at the top: The others are I Love Lucy and Seinfeld.
I didn’t know that, and it’s more than just a trivia question: it says a lot about how America has changed since 1960. For one thing, no network would now think of giving the green light to a low-keyed sitcom about life in a more or less idyllic southern town. What’s more, that kind of long-term popularity has become increasingly rare in TV–and the Nielsen ratings are themselves far less significant than they were in 1960, now that cable TV and time shifting have become ubiquitous and series television must compete with so many other forms of electronic entertainment. 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).
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. And I think it explains why so many people my age have been starting Web sites devoted to Andy Griffith-vintage TV. Of course we’re feeling nostalgic for our lost youth, just as our parents felt nostalgic about big-band music. But it’s not just that we miss those old shows, and the simpler world view they collectively epitomized: we also miss the fact that they gave us something in common, something to talk about besides the weather. We all know who Don Knotts is, which is why it made us so sad to hear of his death (and why the obituary of a second banana got so much play on the evening newscasts, which are mostly viewed by older people). What percentage of us can recall the name of anyone who competed on American Idol two years ago?
Our Girl and I have lately found it hard to write a post that doesn’t mention Philip Larkin, perhaps because he so accurately foresaw so many of the ways in which the world would change under the aspect of postmodernity. Now I find myself thinking of this stanza from a Larkin poem called MCMXIV:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.