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.
Of course, what's portrayed on screen in Andy is absurdly homogenized. Mayberry is said to be in North Carolina. Yet, like Woody Allen's version of New York City, this small southern town apparently has no African-American citizens. It's also hard to imagine a character like "town drunk" Otis Campbell on TV today—unless he was in rehab with Dr. Drew.
But dated is the point. The show is a bucolic fantasy. Now as when it first aired, Andy is supposed to be a refuge from modern life, not a reflection of it. Complaining about a lack of gritty realism in Mayberry would be like complaining that baseball stadiums have too much green space.
A widower, Andy's domestic life was devoted to raising Opie, eating Aunt Bee's cooking, and going on an occasional date with semi-feminist schoolteacher Helen Crump or flat-out liberated Ellie Mae Walker. Sheriff Taylor's real job, though, is government. In Mayberry, Andy is the personification of Law and Order. He is the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer, executing each job with Solomonic wisdom. As sheriff, he is the model of modern effective policing, eschewing technology over personal relationships and abhorring the well-meaning but overzealous violence represented by the crusading-but-bumbling Barney and his single bullet.
Andy Griffith left Mayberry and the show he created in 1968, to start his own production company. After a few less successful series and a gillion guest appearances, he struck gold a second time with the legal drama Matlock. That show has since become a punchline. It gets lambasted for the same things that Andy gets praised for—a slow pace and folksy wisdom—which probably says more about changes in our culture than the quality of the show itself. Matlock ran for nine years, after all, and was nominated for several Emmy awards.
None of those nominations went to Griffith, though. He was never nominated: not for playing Matlock, or a single one of those gillion guest appearances. He never won anything for The Andy Griffith Show, either. Don Knotts won five Emmys. and Frances Bavier won one. Griffith was never even nominated once.
But Griffith could take comfort in something more meaningful than a trophy: longevity.
In the 50 years since it first aired, The Andy Griffith Show has never been off the air. In prime time, and in syndication, to this day, no matter where you are in the real world, you can always find a way to back to Mayberry.
Griffith did. In 1986 Griffith and Knotts teamed up one last time. In the made-for-TV reunion special Return to Mayberry, he and Barney made a pilgrimage back to their fictional home. Now, at the age of 86, Andy Griffith has gone home for real.