First Andy Taylor, now Quinton McHale. In the span of less than a week, television has lost two of its most indelible performers, and the passing of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine seems yet another symbolic end of an era for a medium that itself seems to be entering a new era – and, if you ask me, not necessarily for the better.
So forgive me if I wax nostalgic on their passing, but I came of age during television’s Silver Age, and it was programs like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “McHale’s Navy” that were some of my earliest cultural reference points. While they were not exactly high-brow content, they provided a sense of civility that I believe mass media has essentially lost, and that it is beginning to fray our social fabric.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t necessarily put “McHale’s Navy” on any of my top-shows-of-all-time lists, but it did give us some valuable things. Most important of all, it simply made us laugh, and in a good-natured way, without crass, debasing, disrespectful and overly gratuitous or sexualized jokes.
Hey, I’m no prude, and there is definitely room for edginess on television. Some of the shows I would definitely add to my top lists are quite edgy. But when shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” pushed the envelope, they generally did it from a starting point of human connections that were based on genuine character motivations.
But these are all dramas. The one prime-time sitcom exception to the debasement rule is ABC’s “Modern Family,” which manages to make us laugh – and even think about the ridiculousness of human foibles – without going to the lowest common denominator. So in some ways, “Modern Family” is really a throwback to TV’s silver or golden ages. It’s funny, because it is well-written and we can all relate to it.
I’m not suggesting that we turn back any clocks, but I wouldn’t be opposed to see – and hear – a kinder, more respectful tone on television.
Interestingly, Borgnine once observed that the whole shift toward gratuitous content in media probably began when Clark Cable’s Rhett Buttler said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” in “Gone With The Wind.”
“Somebody's ears pricked up and said, ‘Oh boy, here we go!’ Writers used to make such wonderful pictures without all that swearing, all that cursing. And now it seems that you can't say three words without cursing. And I don't think that's right,” Borgnine opined.
As the lines between TV and all-other-things-video increasingly blur, maybe it’s time for television to regain some higher ground. Maybe it could start by throttling back on gratuitous language and salacious portrayals of over-sexualized characters just for some lame punch line.
To paraphrase Ensign Charles Parker, McHale’s sidekick portrayed by Tim Conway, “Gee, I don’t love that kind of talk.”