Now as when it first aired, the series is a refuge from modern life, not a reflection of it.
Andy Griffith was a great villain. Anyone who has seen Griffith's film début can attest to that. In 1957's A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, Griffith—who died today at age 86—plays a backwoods drifter who becomes a TV host and uses the show to gain political power. It's a dark, brooding, quietly scary performance. It's also stunning to watch.
That's because Griffith's public persona was anything but dark. The actor began on stage as a comic storyteller—jovial, self-effacing, and filled with folksy wisdom. That image would define him, despite the occasional foray into playing against type.
He first found fame with What it Was, Was Football. In it he portrayed a country bumpkin who stumbles upon a college football game and tries to figure out what he's seeing. The routine, released as a single in 1953, became a novelty hit. Griffith jumped to TV, debuting in No Time for Sergeants. (A few years later, reprising the role on film, he would meet a short, gangly, bugged-eyed budding comic genius named Don Knotts.) More TV followed. In 1960, Griffith guest-starred on an episode of Make Room for Daddy, playing a country sheriff who catches city slicker Danny Thomas speeding in his fancy car.
That role would evolve into the iconic Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, which debuted in 1960. That storyline—of the urbanite who is taught, often unwillingly, to appreciate the joys of country life, would become the overarching narrative for eight years of the series.
Ostensibly, Andy began a trend. People in rural America were getting TV for the first time, and Andy was meant to tap that audience. So was a wave of shows that followed, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. These were the first sitcoms set in the country, with characters that spoke in Southern accents, and the program couldn't have been more different from, for instance, I Love Lucy with its glamorous showbiz setting and main characters in what we would now call a multicultural marriage.
Andy, though, was just simply better than the shows that tried to imitate it. Unlike the shows that tried to follow it and virtually every other sitcom on at the time, Andy was never wacky or zany. The storylines were more plausible, the characters more authentic. The cinematography and direction were better, too—Andy was shot languidly, in keeping with the hyper-mellow pace of small-town life. Most importantly, the fictional town of Mayberry and what it represents weren't held up for ridicule. On other shows ostensibly about rural folk, being rural was a source of humor. The Clampett family on The Beverly Hillbillies, for instance, were laughed at more than they were laughed with, and their hometown of Bugtussel is benighted. Mayberry was treated reverently, as a pastoral ideal, and the town would enter the pop consciousness as a synonym for the quieter pleasures and virtues of small-town American life.