With all the trouble in the world, and most of it being broadcast into our living rooms via television, the inclination to go into hibernation is strong. In a way, I kind of do that through television by seeking out shows from the past — not out of any great sense of nostalgia, but just to escape from the more turgid types of television.
I must self-report, that last sentence was written by a guy who was absolutely addicted to the AMC show “Breaking Bad.”
So, let’s return to the pastoral and nonthreatening town of Mayberry and Sheriff Andy Taylor. It may not be the antidote to our modern problems — those are found in Scripture — but this 57-year-old television show still has charm and still entertains. And it does so with a lot more wit and sophistication than it is given credit for.
Like “I Love Lucy” — which personally I don’t think holds up half as well — “The Andy Griffith Show” can still make me laugh, but, generally, just leaves me with a warm feeling. I realize this is reading too much into things. It was a television show. It’s No. 1 objective was to make money for advertisers and make the cast and crew a very good living. It accomplished all of those things, but, in the process, I would venture it also made art.
Unlike modern-day television sitcoms that revolve around families, when “The Andy Griffith Show” aired sitcom families were either husband-and-wife households, or the wife was dead. The number of widowers on TV during the 1960s should have initiated a second Warren Commission.
But unlike a lot of single dads in sitcoms before and since, Sheriff Andy was no dolt. He was actually the straight man letting his eccentric cast of supporting players get the laughs. And when it came time to interacting with his son, Opie Taylor (played by a young Ron Howard, who went on to become a critically acclaimed director), he was the voice of reason and the adult in the room.
These days, it is the children who assume the adult role in a lot of sitcoms and in films (see every Disney animated movie made since “The Fox and the Hound”). Not so in Mayberry. The character Sheriff Andy maintained his authority not through any overbearing power play, but with the kind of authority administered in mercy and generosity, like when the Church is hitting on all cylinders. It is a thing of beauty.
It is not always easy and it is not always pleasant. An episode in the early years of “The Andy Griffith Show” makes this point painfully clear. It was an episode starring movie and television icon Buddy Ebsen. He was a hobo who lived a carefree life free from responsibility and all the “trappings” of humdrum everyday life. Opie is enthralled and his father, Sheriff Andy, can see the boy is a little too enthralled.
This is a timeless arc and not some cotton candy version of a bygone era. The father, Sheriff Andy, can’t compete with the carefree hobo and the more he tries to reason with his son, the more he seems to be pushing him away.
Check out the episode, titled “Opie’s Hobo Friend,” for yourself and you’ll see a powerful piece of classic television that holds up extremely well. Toward the climax of the show, Andy has a frank and remarkably nuanced two-way conversation with Ebsen’s character. It is an exchange as complicated and artistic as anything you are going to see on television today.
Obviously, Sheriff Andy wants the hobo to leave. He believes him to be a bad influence on his son. The hobo challenges the father, almost serpent like in the garden, telling him to let the boy decide for himself what course to follow. Sheriff Andy then responds with words every father should burn into his heart.
“Nah, I’m afraid it don’t work that way. You can’t let a youngin decide for himself. He’ll grab at the first flashy thing with shiny ribbons on it, then when he finds out there’s a hook in it, it’s too late. The wrong ideas come packaged with so much glitter it’s hard to convince him that other things might be better in the long run, and all a parent can do is say, ‘Wait. Trust me, and try to keep temptation away.’ ”
I won’t tell you how it ends, but in a world rife with shiny objects with hooks hidden inside, it might bode us all well to listen to this sage advice — even though it emanates from a fictional television character from more than half century ago.