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.