Monday, October 25, 2010

The Solvable Problems of Mayberry

In today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

This month marks the 50th anniversary of an enduring television program, The Andy Griffith Show; and as a child of the first TV generation, I think I speak with some authority in saying it was one of the finest shows ever produced. It ran from 1960 through 1968, and while I was only six when production ended, I grew up watching episodes in syndication.

For the handful of people who haven’t seen the show, it focused on everyday life in Mayberry, a small southern town. At the center was Andy Taylor, a widower who lived with his young son, Opie, and a housekeeper, Aunt Bee. Taylor, played by Andy Griffith, was the straight man to his bumbling deputy, Don Knotts’ Barney Fife, a man so inept he was forced to keep his one bullet in his shirt pocket so he wouldn’t shoot himself in the foot.

Each episode of the show provided a brief glimpse into the lives of the residents—Floyd the barber, Howard the county clerk, Helen the schoolteacher, Otis the town drunk, Gomer the mechanic and others. They went to work and built their lives, sorted out squabbles and mended friendships. Nothing extraordinary ever happened, except maybe the occasional intrusion by Ernest T. Bass, a crazed mountain man who would storm into town to throw rocks and stir up trouble.

For the rest of us who hold up The Andy Griffith Show as the standard by which all other shows should be judged, we’ve all got our favorite episodes. You may like the one where Barney wants to sing tenor in the church choir, but Andy moans, “I don’t know how he does it, but he’s got a knack o’ hittin’ a note just enough off to make your skin crawl.” Or maybe you prefer the one where Gomer feuds with Barney and chases him through town screaming “citizen’s arrest!” Or is it the one where Opie is accused of burning down a farmer’s barn, and Barney, drunk on just one ladle of shine, discovers the farmer had accidently burned it down himself while taking a nip from his secret still.

For me, “The Pickle Story” is my favorite episode. Aunt Bee enjoys making pickles and usually enters them in a contest at the annual fair, but she decides to stop competing because her friend Clara wins the blue ribbon year after year. Andy and Barney devise a plan to boost Bee’s spirits by replacing her pickles, inedible things Barney calls “kerosene cucumbers,” with store-bought pickles and then raving over them as if Bee has made something prize worthy. The plan backfires, and the men and Opie are forced to eat eight quarts of pickles in order for Clara to win the contest fair and square. What may seem insignificant to some people can be awfully important to someone else, they learn.

The Andy Griffith Show has been criticized for putting too good a face on life in an era that was turbulent in reality. Throughout the 1960s, the country was at war, had seen the assassination of major political and social figures and was being torn apart by civil and equal rights movements. Yet week after week, life in Mayberry went on unscathed without even a mention of segregation, social upheaval or war protests. It was as if the entire town lived in a bubble.

But this television show, with all of its glossing over, was never meant to provide grand social commentary. Instead, it gave us a breather from the larger, insurmountable issues and allowed us to focus on the common, solvable problems of life—will Barney stand brave in the face of a bully? Will Opie discover the consequences of lying? Will Andy learn to trust his son? “There’s a moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in someone or not,” he realizes.

Life in Mayberry was—and continues to be—a respite from life outside of it. And now in yet another tumultuous era, I find relief in looking in on a town where the sheriff keeps peace without a gun, where neighbors all know each other by name and where a man will eat eight quarts of pickles just to make his aunt happy. Yeah boy.

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In honor of today's column, here is one of my favorite scenes from the show with Barney demonstrating how he has remembered the Preamble to the Constitution since school days:

1 comment:

dive said...

Another great piece, Robyn. Ah, memories.

I love the clip. I was giggling from that first "We" and by the time he got to "United" I was a mess of tears and guffaws. Hoorah for Barney! He got there in the end.