Saunders: No doubt in my mind,"Andy" was the best

July 3, 2012 

Can you believe it? There is actually debate, among people with real – and, one assumes, functioning – brains over what is the greatest television show of all time.

TV Guide, the couch potato’s bible before networks started showing what’s on next right there on the screen, once came out with a list of the 50 greatest shows of all time, and “The Andy Griffith Show” ranked ninth. (Insert favorite barnyard epithet here.)

“The Andy Griffith Show” was behind “Seinfeld” and “I Love Lucy,” among others.

All you’ve got to do is look at the settings of the shows selected ahead of it to see the geographical sensibilities – and, dare one say it – geographical biases of whoever came up with that rancid ranking.

“Seinfeld,” “The Honeymooners,” “All in the Family,” “I Love Lucy” and “The Sopranos” were all set solidly up North – not one was south of New Jersey – and that setting was integral to their storylines, if not their appeal.

Rating the greatness of a show, flawed and subjective though any such undertaking is, has to take into account its watchability years after its initial run, right? Tell the truth: don’t you cringe, at least a bit, when Archie Bunker refers to different ethnic groups by various slurs.

A show can be important and ground-breaking, both of which “All in the Family” was, but that doesn’t automatically make it great. On “I Love Lucy,” perhaps it was cute and funny at one time to portray women as hapless, whiny, simple creatures always getting into predictable fixes from which their wise and tolerant husbands had to extricate them. But that comedic conceit wouldn’t play in Peoria or Pittsboro today.

“The Andy Griffith Show” would. And does.

Not dumbed down

The show, to its ever-loving credit, never, ever dumbed down its denizens or made them one dimensional joke figures.

Think about the Darling family or Ernest T. Bass. Yeah, they were loopy and loony, but there was also a dignity and touch of menace about them to let you know not to pick at them. Remember the episode where the mystifyingly virginal Miss Crump tries to teach Ernest T. how to read and write?

That could have been played for cheap laughs at the expense of a dumb Southern hick who didn’t know the Pacific Ocean from Old Man Kelsey’s creek, but by show’s end when he “graduates,” you’re reaching for your hanky.

Trying to pick a favorite episode of the show is about as impossible as picking a favorite Al Green song. Each one you see – or hear – becomes your favorite.

At least among the black-and-white episodes.

Call me a blasphemer, but despite the show’s uninterrupted popularity, the color episodes beginning in its sixth season don’t seem as memorable. Indeed, if I turn on the set and come across a color episode these days, I’m liable to keep on flipping.

By then, Barney had moved to Raleigh – and not just for the weekend to get a corner room at the Y – and new characters had been introduced to the show. It might also have been that in the mid-’60s, when the color episodes started, real life in the rest of the world was changing unrelentingly while Mayberry remained insular.

Somehow, wondering whether Howard Sprague’s mama was going to let him play cards with the fellas just didn’t seem as important in the color episodes, while cities were burning and leaders were being assassinated.

Andy wasn’t perfect

Andy Taylor – as someone who never watched a single “Matlock,” I’ll always consider Andy Griffith to be Andy Taylor – also has to get some votes as the best TV dad of all time. Unlike Ward Cleaver or Heathcliff Huxtable, Andy had no lovely or high-powered wife flitting around the crib to help with raising his young’un.

It’s not that the sheriff that Griffith portrayed was perfect, either. You know how with really, really beautiful women it’s their flaws that make them interesting? Same with Andy.

Just think of the way he’d cup his cigarette in his hand as if trying to hide it or how he wouldn’t believe Opie’s tale about the hatchet he received from the man – Mr. McBeevee – walking in the trees. (He was a line repairman.)

Ah, now I remember my favorite episode.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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