Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Take two Mayberrys and call me in the morning

Remember all those trembling maidens in novels of yore who were always succumbing to brain fever? Hounded into illness by some horrible wretch of a man, they either survive to lead pitiful broken lives or expire and leave behind a coil of glossy auburn hair in the bottom of a trunk.

Well I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on TV and, frankly, I don't even know what "brain fever" really is, but I think I have the antidote: those ladies need to spend some time in Mayberry.

I've been there this week while flattened by fevers that leave me feeling as if my brain has been replaced by a bowl of stewed prunes, but I've found soothing therapy in a pile of DVD's featuring episodes of old television shows. In my current condition, the frenetic action and rippling repartee on an episode of CSI or Law & Order would send me right over the edge into delirium, but watching Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner Frank discuss Joe's toothache, with frequent references to Frank's sister's wisdom teeth and the severity and persistence of the pain she experienced, is just about my speed. Crime can wait! Let's sit around the precinct and talk about our dental health.

I can't watch Flash Gordon while in my right mind because the urge to mock is overwhelming, but in my weakened condition, the implausibilities roll right over me. So the current galactic bad guy is wearing what looks like a George Foreman grill on his head? How handy that must be when Mr. Evil Despot arrives home at night and calls out his usual greeting to Mrs. Evil Despot:

"Honey! I'm home!"

"Oh hello darling, how was your day?"

"Oh you know, a little paperwork, a little torture, a little maniacal laughter--same old same old."

"That's nice, dear. Now pop up your lid and let me put some nice tofu burgers on the grill."

"Tofu burgers again!? How about some real food?"

"Now sweetheart, you know what the doctor said: if you don't watch your cholesterol, you could have a heart attack, and then who will torture Flash Gordon?"

"I guess you're right,dear. Tofu burgers it is!" (Laughs maniacally.)

I noticed that Flash Gordon was filmed in West Berlin, which means that from now on whenever I envision that scene at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, the rocket that comes screaming down out of the sky will be Flash Gordon's Skyflash, which is clearly made of cardboard covered with aluminum foil and therefore poses no threat to any living being. Once again, Flash Gordon saves the day!

Watching the Andy Griffith Show is like being spoon-fed chicken soup by a kindly aunt who mops your brow and says, "There there, there there." In Mayberry, niceness always prevails--and even the problems are mild enough to be soothing: Opie brings home a stray dog. Barney disapproves of Andy's date because all she knows how to cook is a TV dinner. Some guy's goat eats a case of dynamite. No problem: niceness conquers all.

(Q: Who would win the Annoying Character Smackdown between Gomer Pyle and Jar-Jar Binks? Or would they just nice each other to death?)

Niceness also rules on a show I'd never heard of before. Mr. and Mrs. North (from 1952) is probably somewhat more visually sophisticated than the radio show of the same name, but not by much. Jerry and Pam North are a charming career-oriented couple living in Greenwich Village, where they solve crimes in their spare time. They suffer, sadly, from what experts call the Jessica Fletcher Disease: everywhere they go, people die violent deaths. You'd think their circle of friends would figure this out after a while and give the perky crime-solvers a wide berth, but no: even the police fail to notice that Mr. and Mrs. North are the epicenter of murder in Greenwich Village. Their best friend, genial Officer Weigand, just laughs and says, "Thanks for the help, Jerry and Pam! We couldn't have solved this one without you!"

(Horatio Caine would whip off his sunglasses, glare at the doorknob, and say, "You've contaminated the crime scene and tampered with evidence and assaulted a key witness with a butterfly net. Jerry and Pam, you're coming with me.")

What I admire about Mrs. North is her ability to chase villains down dark alleys, wheedle confessions out of hardened criminals (while analyzing their faulty syntax!), and hold dying gunshot victims in her arms without ever get a spot of blood on her lovely gown. I can't eat lunch without dripping mustard on my blouse (and the finer the fabric, the bigger the drip), but she can catch hold of a woman who has just been stabbed in the back and lower the carcass to the floor without so much as smudging her lipstick.

And she's always nice. Niceness rules for Mr. and Mrs. North just as it does for Andy and Barney and Opie and even for Flash Gordon, who gives Mr. Evil Despot his comeuppance without ever giving in to the urge to make snide comments about his ridiculous headgear. In the end, these shows bring just what a fevered mind needs: peace, quiet, niceness, and order, order, order!

I'll take a tofu burger on whole wheat, hold the mustard.

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