By Whom Do You Imagine Such A Sign Was Meant To Have Been Painted? The Municipal Signage Department Of Emerald City?*
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The pilot for The Andy Griffith Show was actually an episode of Make Room For Daddy, Danny Thomas's show. Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard had the idea for the show—about a town so small, the sheriff was also the judge, justice of the peace, and I'm not sure what all else, and in this episode Danny gets stopped in a speed trap. Andy wasn't terribly bright and Barney was his cousin. (Barney remained his cousin for a few episodes, then they dropped that.)
One thing they found out really fast was that Barney was a funnier character than Andy, so for the good of the show, Andy Griffith opted to play straight man.
The Andy Griffith Show, is purported to be a warm, wholesome, family show. People might behave badly, but at the end of the day, they learn a lesson and shape up. Strangers come to town and find that the slow, small town life is better than their big city bustle.
And that's not completely untrue, but there's such an underpinning of meanness, I found myself stressing out as I watched the episodes.
Barny Fife is one of those characters we're supposed to like in spite of his unlikeableness. He's officious, he's a bully, he's power hungry, and he's incompetent. (In 2017 he'd make a fine president.) I never liked Barney.
And yet when Andy is deliberately cruel to him, I get very upset. Because, as I used to tell Pat all the time, "I'm not his friend! I can't stand him and I wouldn't treat him like that, but here's his best friend constantly undercutting him, ridiculing him, treating him the way I wouldn't treat my worst enemy! What kind of friend is that?" Yes, in a pinch Andy would come through for Barney, but it has been my experience that in an emergency, even strangers will help you out. Friends are supposed to be nice to you on a daily basis! Otherwise, what's the point?
So the show constantly put me in the position of having to feel sorry for a character I disliked. This is the same problem I had with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, only at least with that one it was almost always Ted doing it to himself. I didn't like watching it, but I wasn't saddled with conflicted feelings about the other characters, except for wishing they'd stop putting up with his crap.
For Pat, the problem was Andy's fathering skills. She said he was a terrible father, and the way he treats Opie in a handful of episodes certainly testifies to this. Andy's response to Opie's behavior when he doesn't understand it is to assume he's doing something bad. The first—and I think worst—case of this is a very early episode where there is a charity drive going on. Opie gives three cents. (He's about six years old, and this is the early '60's; back then, you could actually buy something with three cents.) Andy finds out about this and is humiliated—because it's all about him. When he next sees Opie, he's obnoxious and sarcastic—to a six-year-old who doesn't even know what he's supposed to have done wrong.
When Opie explains he's saving his money to buy a present for his girlfriend, Andy continues this passive-aggressive behavior. He calls him Diamond Jim Brady and ridicules him in front of other people. In the end—when he finally asks Opie for some details instead of clinging to his nasty conclusions—he finds out the present Opie wants to buy is a coat. His friend's coat is worn out and her parents can't afford to buy her a new one.
Yes, he's embarrassed by this. He should be. The thing is, we never see Opie being a really bad kid, so why would his father jump to a conclusion like this? And not just once. There aren't a lot of episodes like this, but there's definitely a pattern.
In one of the last episodes—one I remember from when it was on originally—Opie, at his new job, breaks what he thinks is an expensive bottle of perfume. He pays to replace it without the store owner finding out, and when the man discovers it (because the broken bottle was only a display filled with colored water), Opie tells him that he couldn't confess because his father was so proud of him. And because he'd be nasty and sarcastic to him if he found out, I thought.
Things changed when Don Knotts left the show, and not for the better. The show became "why Andy Taylor is grumpy this week." They had done shows like that before, with Barney sending Andy off to get some rest only to bother him every fifteen seconds with trivialities. I understand that it's hard to shift a character from straight man to comic center, but this is another form of humor that simply annoys me, and while I can watch an episode of it, three seasons of it was intolerable.
And the worst part was what it did to Andy's character. His playfulness disappeared; he became tense, shrill, and sharp..They emphasized Andy's already strong "what will people think?" tendency, to the point where he gets mean about things like Aunt Bee wearing a blonde wig (people will look at them! He doesn't want people looking at them! She cannot wear a wig!) It gets ugly. A show about a man who is constantly exasperated and impatient isn't funny. At least, not to me.
Other things Aunt Bee wasn't "allowed" to do included learning to drive and learning to fly a plane. In spite of Andy, she did both of these things.
Another problem was, the times, they were a changin' and there was nothing they could do about it. The show went into color. Music changed. Opie edged up on teenage. Outsiders with New York accents showed up, claiming to have lived there their whole lives. The town lost its charm and became as shrill and petty as Andy.
I believe my favorite episode was a later one where an old friend of Goober's had spent the whole episode making him feel small, with his bragging about how successful he was. Goober pretends to be more successful than he is and is humiliated. At the end they discover the old friend doesn't even own his own gas station the way Goober does, and Goober declines the opportunity to rub it in. He doesn't want make his friend feel the way he had. I thought that was sweet.