Paramount // 1961 // 915 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // December 1st, 2004
"You picked a good day to get arrested -- Aunt Bee's a-fixin' chicken and dumplings for dinner."
The Andy Griffith Show has to be one of the most beloved sitcoms ever to air. Its down-home humor and traditional values make it as cozy and comfortable as a well-broken-in pair of jeans, and the characters are so familiar they feel like members of our own family. Even though the little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, doesn't exist on any map, this DVD set of the entire 32-episode first season is a wonderful way to travel to a place where pies are always cooling on the windowsills, the fish are always biting, and every evening you'll hear the sheriff strumming his guitar on his front porch.
In the sleepy little town of Mayberry, easygoing sheriff and justice of the peace Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith, Matlock) and his self-important deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts, Pleasantville), represent the forces of law and order. Andy, a widower, has another important job, albeit a less public one: raising his young son Opie ("Ronny" Howard, American Graffiti) with the help of his motherly Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier). Unlike laid-back Andy, Barney hankers to thwart high-profile lawbreakers, but criminal activity in Mayberry usually restricts itself to bootlegging, disturbing the peace, and parking violations. That leaves plenty of time for Barney and Andy to squire their young ladies around -- and handle all the personal squabbles that crop up in this little town where everyone knows everyone else's business.
When we look at The Andy Griffith Show next to so many of the sitcoms that succeeded it, one of the first things we notice is its relaxed pace. This is partly due to the longer running time per episode -- approximately 25 minutes instead of the 21 or 22 minutes of today's sitcoms -- but it also has a lot to do with the kind of universe the show creates. Watching it takes us back to a slower-paced time and place, where life isn't so hurried, where no one (except perhaps the occasional crank or passing city slicker) is in too much of a rush to stop for a good gossip or an hour of fishing. In Mayberry, everyone still makes time for picnics, good-night stories, and evening strolls; and this relaxed feeling is, I suspect, part of what gives the show its powerful nostalgic appeal. Even the structure of the episodes themselves reflects this unhurried feeling: Many episodes feature Griffith playing his guitar and singing, and this contributes greatly to the down-home charm of the show even if it doesn't usually advance the plot. Likewise, some of the episodes in this season showcase Griffith's comedic talents in extended monologues, like his countrified version of Romeo and Juliet, which he relates to a rapt Opie. Since Griffith had established himself as a monologist before this series came about, we're seeing an expert at work, and these entertaining interludes are all the more to be relished because they're the kind of thing we almost never see any more in television comedy. In all these ways The Andy Griffith Show eases us into a slower-paced, less hectic existence than our own.
One of the other, and most important, qualities that sets the show apart from others is its heart. The humor is always gentle, compassionate, never cruel. Even though Barney -- for example -- makes a fool of himself in his eagerness to see criminal activity in a game of checkers and frequently comes to grief because of his vanity, the show, like the people of Mayberry, takes an indulgent stance toward him. Andy, as the moral center of the show, sets the tone: He can't resist poking gentle fun at his high-strung deputy, and he delights in pushing his buttons, but he's protective of Barney and guards his fragile self-esteem. In the aptly titled episode "Andy Saves Barney's Morale," for example, when the Mayberryites are all laughing at Barney for his overzealous sheriffing during an absence of Andy's, Andy engineers a ploy to turn their attitudes around while letting himself look like the bad guy: He spreads the rumor that he's going to fire Barney, which awakens the town's loyalty to, and affection for, the man they've been making fun of. There's always solid affection behind the laughs, whether Barney or any of the other characters is involved.
Plots like these also show the sheriff's deep knowledge of human nature. Over the course of the show, Andy grew into a fine amateur psychologist, and we get to see the beginnings of that expertise in this season, such as in an episode where he ends a feud between two squabbling families by calling their bluff. It's one of the reasons he doesn't have to employ strong-arm tactics to keep the peace in Mayberry: He knows these people, and he understands how to deal with them. Of course, he isn't perfect. In fact, in this first season of the series, Andy hasn't yet fully developed into the sagacious sheriff we know and love. Griffith's performance in this first year of the show's run is more broad, both in accent and in how he plays comedy; there's more of the golly-gee good ol' boy here than we would see in later seasons. Likewise, he's still young enough to have some important lessons to learn. In later seasons we wouldn't see him making a jackass of himself as he sometimes does here, as when he jumps to the rash conclusion that the pretty new pharmacist, Ellie Walker (Elinor Donahue), has decided to trap him into marriage, or when he mobilizes the men of the town to prevent Ellie from running for city council. In one episode, normally sweet-natured Aunt Bee (the wonderful Frances Bavier, who won an Emmy for the role) has to give him a stern talking-to for being hypocritical and caught up in appearances. Thus, this first season, while highly enjoyable for any fan of the show, offers some intriguing differences from later seasons, when the characters had really gelled.
Similarly, Don Knotts's Barney has not yet grown into full brilliance here. He's definitely the Barney we know and love: full of himself yet easily flummoxed, quick to overreact, with both a child's delight and an adult's swaggering pride in getting to play cops and robbers for a living. The enduring joke of his having only one bullet -- and having to carry that in his shirt pocket -- is established early on. But the scripts don't yet give full rein to Knotts's talents, and Barney isn't as prominent a character as he would become. This is an oversight that would soon be rectified, and Knotts would eventually win five Emmys for his role. This season also sees him with several different love interests, and Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), who would become his steady girlfriend, doesn't appear until late in the season. Likewise, Andy's girl in this season is the bright, intelligent Ellie; in later seasons he would woo comely schoolteacher Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut), but she hasn't yet joined the cast. Other soon-to-be familiar characters like Gomer and Goober would also join the show later on.
However, this season already contains many of the characters we associate with the show: dithering barber Floyd, amiable town drunk Otis, the plump self-satisfied mayor, and busybody Clara Edwards (here called "Bertha"). Also present already are many of the recurring themes that would endure through the life of the show: the simple, traditional values, for one, which make the show so comforting to watch. Charity, compassion, common sense, and honesty are all championed here...although honesty sometimes gets short shrift if Andy has to resort to sneakiness to solve a problem. But the exceptions to the rules are part of the series' value system as well: Andy, as a lawman and as a man, recognizes that sometimes the more humane course is to throw out the rule book and use his own judgment. As he tells Ellie, "Rules and different things like that are fine things to have, I reckon, but sometimes, once in a while, you have to think about the folks involved in 'em." Thus, Andy's justice is always tempered with mercy -- and common sense. If he sees, for example, that a wrongdoer has genuinely repented and that no good would come of forcing the miscreant to do jail time, he'll suspend his sentence. Naturally, this approach to his profession is something that bureaucrats and city folk don't understand, and it's always satisfying to see a plot that features this clash of ideals, because we know that Andy's homespun wisdom will win the day over all the scoffing and city-bred contempt of the by-the-book contingent.
Andy's humanistic approach to police work -- and life -- is particularly important since he's the father of young Opie, who looks to him as a role model. If, as sometimes happens, Opie begins to mimic some of Andy's less exemplary behavior, it's a warning bell to Andy that makes him more conscious of the values he's transmitting. The scenes in which Griffith and the very, very young and adorable Howard have father-son heart-to-hearts are standouts. Howard as a child is a wonderfully honest and seemingly spontaneous actor, and the family dynamic between him, Griffith, and Bavier feels real and convincingly loving. I suspect this is another key to the series's appeal, this depiction of a warm, close-knit family, where problems always get talked out and misunderstandings resolved. This season wisely emphasizes the strength of this unconventional family unit with bookend episodes about the Taylor family. "The New Housekeeper," the first episode of the season, is both hilarious and heart-tugging in its depiction of the newly arrived Aunt Bee trying to win Opie's heart; in the season ender, Aunt Bee convinces Andy that Opie should stop hanging out at the courthouse, and Opie, feeling lonely and at a loose end, wanders away from home.
All of the episodes in this season are enjoyable, and some are standouts that remain highlights of the show's run, like "Alcohol and Old Lace," in which Andy discovers that two sweet little old ladies are operating a still, and "Christmas Story," in which Scroogelike Old Ben Weaver resorts to duplicitous means to join in a jailhouse Christmas celebration without compromising his pride. "A Feud Is a Feud" contains an immortal dueling scene, and "Andy and the Gentleman Crook" depicts a dapper con man worming his way into the unsuspecting hearts of everyone in town -- except Andy, who sees him for what he is. "Andy and Opie, Housekeepers" shows the efforts of the male Taylors to clean the house before Aunt Bee's return from a trip -- and then having to dirty it up again when they realize that too clean a house will make her feel unneeded.
The 32 episodes of this season are contained on four discs, each in its own slim case, and each case insert features episode synopses. The discs and cases are attractively designed to showcase publicity still photos of the main actors. Picture and sound quality are good, especially considering the materials' age and small-screen origin, although visual quality varies somewhat across episodes, with a few episodes being washed-out and skimpy on detail. The expected grain and (minor) flicker are often present, but in most episodes the black-and-white picture is surprisingly clean and crisply detailed, and the mono soundtrack is likewise well balanced, clear of background hiss or noise, and with some nice depth and resonance in the the theme song.
As beloved and enduringly popular as The Andy Griffith Show has proven to be, I can't understand why the release of the show's first season warrants not a single extra. Come on, guys! After all the reunion specials this cast has done, would it be too much to ask for one to be included here? How about interviews -- they don't have to be recent -- or cast bios, or commentaries? Sure, Ron Howard's a big director now and perhaps too busy to participate, and Griffith and Knotts are getting on in years and may not be up to doing commentaries, but surely a television historian could have been roped in. At the very least, we ought to get to see the show's pilot -- the sketch that aired on The Danny Thomas Show and introduced the characters. Really, it seems downright cussed of Paramount not to include a single goody.
On the other hand, it's a treat to get to see these episodes uncut and complete; we even get the epilogues, which were almost always cut in syndication to allow more time for commercials. These are so rarely seen that they feel like an extra...but I'm still not going to let Paramount off the hook entirely.
Mayberry has become something of a utopia for busy urbanites, I suspect, and this first-season collection embodies that simple, unhurried, neighborly way of life that we all hanker for, if we only admit it. It may be a fiction, but it's the way we'd like to believe things really were in the past -- or still is, in small towns untouched by modern bustle. Even though it presents the series before it had fully hit its stride, this DVD collection is a great way to visit, or revisit, a place where everyone can feel at home.
I'm sure that Mayberry's justice of the peace would find for the defendant's innocence, and this court will happily follow Sheriff Taylor's lead. The keys are in the cell door; you can let yourself out.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 915 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* TV Tome Show Guide
* The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers' Club
* Don Knotts Official Site