Show 50th Anniversary:
The Best of Mayberry
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ometimes it isn’t a terrible idea to check back in with a series you used to not care for, and haven’t seen in many years. I grew up watching a fair amount of reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” mostly because back in the good ol’ days, we only had, like, four channels. But I never liked the show as its golly-gee-shucks cornball country antics were never to my taste. It was just filler between “The Munsters” and something else. So this new “Best of” collection came my way, and I decided to give it another shot, some 30 years later, to see how I felt about it today. Guess what? I still don’t really care for the show, but as an adult and a “professional appreciator” (as a friend of mine recently dubbed me), I can see that it’s a quality TV series despite my feelings.
What I didn’t know until last week was that “The Andy Griffith Show” was huge back in the 60s. So popular was the show, that during its eight seasons on the air, it was in the Top Ten every single year, and inexplicably even snagged the #1 spot in its final season. How many shows go out at #1? I have no idea, but I’d imagine the answer is “not many.” If by some chance you’re unfamiliar with it, the show stars Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, the sheriff of the tiny fictitious burg of Mayberry, North Carolina. He’s a widower with a young son named Opie (Ron Howard, the famous director – who’s credited here as Ronny), although I’m not sure if the tragedy of his wife’s passing is ever really dwelled upon; it certainly isn’t in any of these episodes. He’s aided by his bumbling but good-hearted deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts), although aided in what is debatable. Very little law breaking ever happens in Mayberry. Even the town drunk is amiable enough to check himself into the jail when he needs to sober up. Mostly, Andy settles minor arguments between the silly townsfolk with his country wisdom and level-headed way of thinking.
Think of “Twin Peaks” without all the weirdness, violence, murder, sex and drugs, and you’ve basically got Mayberry. Without delving into a condescending and useless history lesson, I think we can all agree that the 60s were a time of great change for this country, but of course not everyone was behind all the social reform. In fact, probably most people weren’t. These are the folks who kept this show on the air and in the Top Ten for eight seasons. The series offered up a simple little idyllic world where everybody was polite and basically good to one other and bad things never happened. It was that perfectly idealized bullshit 50s pipedream that never really existed in the first place, but people were desperately clinging to regardless. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this still going on today, and I’d be hugely surprised (and perhaps even a little disappointed) to not find box sets of this show in the homes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. But I digress.
Most of the episodes are played for light and goofy comedy, with mix-ups and the like. Take for instance “The Pickle Story,” in which Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) makes a mammoth batch of pickles to enter into a county fair competition. Problem is, they taste godawful, and Barney dubs them “kerosene cucumbers,” yet nobody has the heart to tell Aunt Bee. So Andy and Barney must go to extremely inane lengths to remedy this situation, and of course the situation becomes all the more complicated every step of the way. In its own perfect way, an episode like this is really a rather genius piece of television simply because somebody was able to write it in the first place and it works so well. The bulk of the episodes on this set are akin to this type of fare.
Two episodes on the set stand out as incredible TV simply because they buck the series’ trends. “Man in a Hurry” sees a big city guy stranded in Mayberry on a Sunday afternoon when his car fizzles out. Thing is, nobody works on Sundays in Mayberry, so it’s damn near impossible to get the car fixed. But this man must get to the city immediately! He becomes increasingly irate, rude and frazzled, despite everyone’s best attempts to make him feel at home. You can probably guess how it ends, but the ending is irrelevant. It’s the journey the man takes with the townsfolk that sells the episode. The timing and direction is faultless every step of the way. “Class Reunion” is heartbreaking. Andy sees his high school sweetheart for the first time in 20 years and all those old feelings are stirred up again. I don’t want to give any more away, but the ideas behind this episode are what really make a series like this tick. It’s practically a drama, and were I flipping channels and had come across it during a certain scene, I never would’ve guessed it was even part of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Assuming the series did just one or two of these types of stories a season, I can understand exactly why it was so popular, for so long.
But then there’s the episode “Mr. McBeevee,” which involves Opie’s imaginary friend. The only problem is, he’s not imaginary. Yet nobody believes Opie, and by the time Andy was threatening physical violence against the hopeless young boy, I was pretty aghast by the whole thing. The way the material’s played, Mr. McBeevee could very well have been a child molester, and yet nobody would’ve believed Opie. The entire affair just left a bad taste in my mouth, and while it didn’t destroy the set for me, it did prove exactly why this will never be a favorite show of mine, and how this 17-episode trip to Mayberry will probably be the last one I take for a very long time. Mayberry is a nice place to visit, but no matter how quaint and perfect it purports to be, living there would be its own unique kind of hell. And the mind reels as to what kind of damage this show did to the grammar skills of Americans throughout the 60s. I can picture teachers in grade school classrooms struggling to explain to pupils that “just because that’s how they talk on ‘Andy Griffith’ doesn’t mean it’s proper English.”
Make no mistake – this is a fine DVD set, and assigning it any kind of star rating is this fool’s errand, so pay no attention to my three and a half. If you’re a fan of the show but have never gotten around to picking up any of the season box sets due to money issues or whatnot, this is a perfect little collection to own. If you’re just interested in finding out what this show is all about for the first time, you’ll find no better primer. But if, like me, a small town sans mayhem is just too unrealistic a proposition to swallow, it’s probably for the best that you skip this altogether.
Special Features: The set includes Andy Taylor’s first appearance in an episode of “The Danny Thomas Show,” as well as the entire made-for-TV reunion movie “Return to Mayberry” from 1986. There are also informative text introductions for every single episode and a few live TV bits featuring Andy Griffith from something called “Opening Night.”