Nobody ever had to wonder whether Aunt Bee was in rehab

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Down South this past weekend, five acquaintances --specifically three teens and two adults --asked me five different things about Hollywood, with the same curiosity.

Did Miley really mean to take photos like those in that magazine? Is Britney going to get her kids back -- and what about shaving her head?

Had I been to the set of "Dancing With the Stars" to see the Jonas Brothers perform?

What about Robert Downey Jr.? After "Iron Man," is he on the straight and narrow or will all that money be another excuse to crash and burn?

And finally, is Hollywood for Obama or for Clinton? (No one even in Mississippi thinks McCain has a shot with the Tinseltown crowd, but all three candidates, thanks to yearlong coverage and myriad magazine cover stories, have taken on the allure of celebrity-hood.)

In any case, to such queries I answer politely but vaguely since I usually haven't a clue.

There in the heartland, folks pay a lot of attention to their TV shows, gossip mags, blogs and Web sites. Many are numbed or indifferent to crime-laced, car chase-laden local TV newscasts but increasingly addicted to their celebrity fix, from wherever.

Even discounting the math related to the questions I was asked, I'd hazard that a disconcerting proportion of what teens are attuned to -- or at least are willing to articulate to an adult -- has to do with the shenanigans that stars get up to, the "this just in" items that E! Online, OMG, TMZ and their ilk investigate as though they were of earth-shattering importance.

Not that there's anything wrong with a now-and-again interest in celebrities, but to the exclusion of practically everything else? (Do kids no longer have hobbies or ever just go outside to play?)

I was thinking about this phenom the other night while grazing the dial waiting for presidential primary results and happened upon an early episode of "The Andy Griffith Show." I missed the credits, but I knew it was an early-season rerun because the men were wearing straw hats (those went out when Kennedy came in) and Opie was a pretty tiny tyke in this one.

In the sitcom, Mayberryites get all gussied up because a Hollywood film producer has come to town to scout for a movie location. All the good folks, including Floyd, Barney and Aunt Bee, come out in their finery and poised to chop down the town's oldest tree to accommodate the shoot.

As it turns out, the producer just wants the townsfolk to be themselves and go about their daily lives -- and to put down that ax. In short, to be so doggone star-struck would be artificial and weird. The viewer sees the humor in all this through the eyes of Sheriff Andy Taylor, the only sensible person in the episode.

The sequence epitomizes how much we've changed in 50-odd years, though the CBS hit (which aired from 1960-68) more closely mirrored the rural realities, pieties and prejudices of the 1950s than the '60s.

This arguably was the only episode in which showbiz directly obtruded into the rituals of Mayberry: Aunt Bee, who we learn is a fan of Rock Hudson, did not keep posters of the actor on her wall; Opie did not pine for an iPod; and there were no town meetings to approve tax incentives for film shoots.

Life was largely about other things.

When I eventually switched over to watch first Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton addressing supporters after the primary results in North Carolina and Indiana, I was struck by the faces in the crowds. A sizable number were young, and a few even looked, well, Mayberry-ian. (The series was in fact set in North Carolina.)

They were shouting and waving to their candidates as though they were stars. And pros that they are, the candidate obliged, emphasizing a few of those long-ago Mayberry values and concerns: the prices at the gas pump, the sorry state of our schools, the need to come together as neighbors to, in Obama's words, "take back our country."

I'm guessing that John McCain, who came of age in the Mayberry-ian decade, eventually will try to tap into a similar vein once the final race for the White House is joined in September.

Whatever else, the presidential race this year is the best show in town, and the public fascination with the candidates is a welcome, if temporary, hiatus from the trivialities of teen starlets.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.
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