Consider the following:
Tone deaf Barney Fife’s lurching tenor could peel the bark off trees, but he brags himself onto the choir right before a state competition. Unable to convince Barney to take a speaking role or sit the performance out, Sheriff Andy Taylor tasks him with the centerpiece solo in their arrangement. However, when Barney sings, his mic will be dead while another singer, a singer who’s not even a tenor, belts it out backstage, and Barney takes the credit.
Local business tycoon Ben Weaver complains about a mild-mannered peddler selling on the streets, and a mischievous Andy antagonizes him by providing the peddler a more and more elaborate storefront, until Ben retaliates by underselling the merchant. Andy fixes things by pretending the peddler has been bought by Ben’s competition, prompting Ben to buy him out and give him a job.
When Barney is threatened by a local brute for giving him a ticket, Andy gets Barney’s judo instructor to pose as Barney and fight the man. By the time the real Barney finally meets up with the bully – egged on by Andy to face his fears – the man is terrified of the deputy he thinks kicked his butt.
Poor Henry Bennett is dogged by a reputation that he’s a jinx; when he decides to move, Andy shames the town into a conspiracy where they rig a church raffle to prove Henry’s luck has changed.
Notorious trickster Ernest T. Bass comes to Andy, demanding he help him get an education so he can ask his girlfriend to marry him; when Ernest T. proves unteachable, Andy contrives a fake diploma and ceremony to satisfy him.
These are just a few of the many, many overt lies, lies of omission, deceptions, and manipulations that keep The Andy Griffith Show’s (1960-1968) idyllic hamlet of Mayberry humming contentedly at the foot of the western North Carolina mountains. Mayberry is enshrined in public memory and specifically Southern memory as a romanticized rural world where decency, virtue, and friendship rule the day, where two men can serve as the police and emergency services for an entire town*, where disputes rise only as far as punched noses and shotgun feuds simmer for generations without actual casualties, where a single long distance phone line is enough for everybody to share, where no one ever argues about religion or politics**, where no one’s ignorance ever hurts them.
Most people believe Mayberry is based on Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mt. Airy, NC, and to be fair, it shares a lot of geography and features, but it’s truer to say Mt. Airy based itself on Mayberry, spending fully a human lifetime now making itself into a living monument to its most famous son. Griffith himself, considered white trash growing up and salty about it, couldn’t wait to get out of Mt. Airy, and you can sympathize that in life he resisted the idea that his eternal TV hometown was his own hometown, which he must have regarded with mixed feelings at best. As if Mayberry could ever be a place you could visit in the flesh anyway. But Andy died years ago, and so have most of the people who helped make the show. Ron Howard, who began playing Andy’s son Opie at the age of 6, is now eligible for all the senior citizen discounts. And like Confederate memorials that began popping up across the country just about the time The Andy Griffith Show went on the air, there’s a bronze statue of Andy and Opie in Mt. Airy, a memorial to something that never really was the way the people responsible for it never wanted to remember it. But that’s fitting, too. Mayberry, as actually presented on the screen, episode to episode, is not a site of lost virtues of a simpler time, not the way people remember. It is, rather, a place where everyone agrees on a pleasant delusion. Even in the context of the show, Mayberry is built on and bound by lies. And Sheriff Andy Taylor is the Prince of Lies.
I want to say at the outset that no one expects a sitcom to be a guide for how anyone should live their life. The way characters tackle embarrassments and endure personal tragedies in 22-26 minutes of sticky situations can cover a mighty range of human behavior, from Lucy Ricardo’s schemes to Leslie Knope’s unflappable optimism to Basil Fawlty beating his broken car with a tree limb, and the goal, after all, is to get you to laugh. And I love The Andy Griffith Show. I was raised on it. I was pretty much raised in it, a kid close to young Andy Griffith in social status, watching its static-blighted reruns daily on antenna TV from a trailer park in a very small town 30 minutes south of Mt. Airy. But loving something doesn’t mean you can’t see it for what it is. In an exhaustive interview with the Archive of American Television, Griffith said he didn’t think they ever consciously thought about the morals of the show. It was probably hard enough to turn out regular stories that were both funny and true to the characters, which Griffith said was the real lodestar for the series. They wanted a character-driven show filled with wacky, silly, but real people, and the touching family moments, the moving lessons about love, loss, and growing up – all that stuff naturally happened along with the faithful character work. I’d say they were wildly successful. I also think that success – creating a fictional world that had such authentic emotional resonance — makes it even more meaningful that so very many episodes depend on Andy, the town’s leader and conscience as well as its straight man, getting everyone to nod along with a lie.
Many episodes of The Andy Griffith Show do explicitly address the virtue of honesty and the perils of straying from same, usually in the context of Andy raising Opie well, but there are a couple important distinctions the show makes again and again. First, lying where money is concerned is always wrong, no matter who does it. The season 1 episode “The Horse Trader” hoists Andy himself up on a pillory, as the sheriff outright invents a distinguished war record for a broken down cannon, the better to unload it onto an antiques dealer. When he realizes the terrible example he’s set for Opie, he will, of course, tell the dealer the truth and renegotiate himself out of any profit. Andy was lying on behalf of the town council in the episode, not to pad his own pocket, so it doesn’t really stray too far from his usual mores, but the lines crossed on an accounting ledger are inviolable in a way that Barney Fife’s public image isn’t. The season 5 episode, “Barney Fife, Realtor,” plays out similarly, with Andy realizing that glossing over damages and problems to sell his house so they can move into an even nicer one isn’t worth his son losing his moral compass. And of course, in one of the series’ most touching character studies, an episode most would hold up as an exemplar of its family values, “Opie’s Hobo Friend,” Buddy Ebsen plays a charismatic vagrant, Uncle Dave, that charms young Opie with his conniving, thieving ways and opens the child’s mind to the kind of moral relativism you usually don’t get until the kid starts reading Ayn Rand. When Andy confronts him, the amoral hobo is chastened enough that he deliberately gets caught stealing Aunt Bee’s purse, breaking the glamour he cast on the boy. Andy thanks him, knowing that Uncle Dave is alienating his young friend on purpose, and that he’s using a lie to show him a greater truth. Of course, he would know. That’s Andy’s medium.
The second important point about lying in Mayberry is that no one can do it with impunity, even white lies, unless you’re Andy. When Barney orchestrates a crime wave to dissuade Andy from taking a job in Raleigh, it’s a premise; when Andy lies to the entire town that he’s going to fire Barney so they appreciate him more, it’s a solution. Andy lies and abuses his authority constantly, and as long as he’s not lying about money, in this universe, it is fine. It is more than fine. It is the glue that holds Mayberry together. “You know, Andy, you run this town single-handed,” Bee remarks when Andy considers leaving. “Oh, not really,” he says. “The town more runs itself.” But that’s the biggest lie of all. It’s true that days tumble into days without much care, but would it be that way without the puppetmaster at the courthouse massaging egos, adjusting blind spots, smoothing edges, making sure Barney keeps his bullet in his pocket? Well, Mayberry R.F.D. did make it three seasons before it was swept off the air in the Rural Purge of 1971, but there aren’t any statues to Ken Berry in Mt. Airy, are there?
Andy’s lies and manipulations can be pretty reckless, too. Again, one realizes this is a sitcom, but forgiving whether he can legally pull off many of his stunts, like faking a hold-up with Ellie to build-up Barney’s ego so he’ll ask a woman out or making up parking violations to keep a band in town or increasing Danny Thomas’s traffic fine 900% to teach him a lesson, some are just plain dangerous. In “Barney Gets His Man,” he leaves Barney alone in a barn, knowing that an escaped convict with a grudge against Barney is hiding in the hayloft. He even deliberately misdirects the state police. Meanwhile, he secretly watches, so he can stage Barney capturing the convict. He puts Barney in harm’s way again in “Mountain Wedding,” when he has Barney pose as the bride in a wedding to trick Ernest T. Bass, who he believes will attempt to steal the bride away. To keep a promise to Opie in “Runaway Kid,” Andy covers up the presence of Opie’s runaway friend in his house, even to the authorities searching for the boy in a neighboring town, instead choosing to manipulate the little boy into wanting to call home himself. And there are numerous episodes where Andy or Andy and his girlfriend pretend to be interested in other people in order to get another couple together. (“Cyrano Andy,” “Irresistible Andy,” “Andy the Matchmaker,” “Barney and Thelma Lou, Phfftt.”) None of these should turn out well, but they always do.
The really remarkable thing about these lies are they are so often conspiratorial. Andy deceives, but Mayberry is happy to be deceived. In the example with Barney and the choir, everyone in town with ears knows by the end of that episode that he can’t sing, except Barney Fife and possibly his childhood singing coach. But the Mayberry choir wins a competition and Barney wins a special prize based on someone else’s singing. Not only do they get away with it, not only does the true soloist apparently not care he missed out on money and recognition, but everybody knows. No one wants Barney’s feelings to be hurt, so the lie stands. The season one episode “Ellie Comes to Town” shows what happens when someone from outside Mayberry doesn’t buy into the town’s confederacy. Taking over for her ailing uncle at his pharmacy, Ellie refuses to fill town hypochondriac Emma’s standing medicine order without a prescription. The medicine itself is just sugar pills, but Ellie finds herself quickly shunned by the entire community as Emma suffers as extravagantly and publicly as she can manage. The episode doesn’t end with Emma learning the truth about her medicine or even getting a prescription for it; it ends with Ellie discarding her professional standards and becoming a party to the comfortable lie. And that’s how Andy gets his first love interest.
When the short-lived (but quite good!) horror series American Gothic debuted back in 1995, commercials held up Gary Cole’s outwardly benign, yet sinister Sheriff Buck and the voiceover cautioned, “But he ain’t no Sheriff Andy.” And as a Machiavellian, supernaturally-powerful rapist and murderer lording over the small town of Trinity, SC, Buck certainly wasn’t. But the central idea of American Gothic, that a sleepy, rural southern town harbored secrets that depended on Sheriff Buck’s stewardship to keep hidden, was an idea hatched in Mayberry’s shadow. The Andy Griffith Show itself had turned the trope of the corrupt, ignorant southern sheriff on its head by making Andy Taylor wise as well as wily, and if he stretched the truth and stretched his authority, it was always in the service of goodness and fairness. In the pilot, it’s clear that’s the intention, as Danny Thomas balks that Andy is both sheriff and justice of the peace, a clear conflict of interest. But when he challenges Andy’s legitimacy on live TV, he gives Andy a platform to explain his judgment that Danny, rich and brash and fast, needed to pay a steeper fine than usual to feel its consequence, but also, more importantly, to personally benefit from the punishment. And we’re given to understand that Andy is right. (Andy does not seem to ever consider how someone might personally benefit from learning, say, that they can’t sing or their pickles are inedible or they have been taking sugar pills for decades.) In this way, Mayberry isn’t governed by law; it is governed by a good man’s discretion, which sounds benign until you consider what’s keeping Sheriff Andy from being Sheriff Buck? You can idealize Andy’s close relationship with Opie, the vibrant sense of community in Mayberry, and an unplugged age when Sundays are for sitting on the front porch whittling, not livetweeting Game of Thrones. But if you do that, you must also accept that even in such a pacific, good-hearted world, as thoroughly white and heterosexual and Christian and conformist as they come, a majority of the time, there’s still no path to a happy ending except through a deliberate lie.
Whenever you are reading this, The Andy Griffith Show is on somewhere right now. Amazon Prime has the most complete streaming collection I’m aware of. The 1986 reunion TV movie, Return to Mayberry, is hard to find, but worth tracking down.
* Sheriff is a county position, but the county and town share the same jurisdiction.
** In an early episode, “Ellie For Council,” there was a schism in the town on the basis of whether Ellie should run for council based on her sex. While not apolitical, this battle of the sexes did not pretend it had anything to do with Ellie’s policy proposals or “likeability.” The most specific political reference in the show was Floyd the Barber’s tendency to attribute all quotes to Calvin Coolidge.
No one was making fun of Andy Griffith. Angela can’t emphasize that enough.
Fascinating read to me, a Northerner who only knows this show via other people’s references to it and have never watched a single minute other than (IIRC?) watching part of an episode where Opie shoots a bird with a BB gun as an example of why the show was great (I think) sometime on the internet in the 00s.
“Opie the Birdman” is possibly THE classic episode people point to because heartwarming and it’s very For Your Emmy Consideration, so that doesn’t surprise me, but pretty much everything in seasons 2-5 holds up extremely well! (I love season 1, too, but it’s more embryonic and of its time. They hit their stride in season 2.) Many episodes still make me laugh out loud. “The Pickle Story,” “The Haunted House,” “Barney’s First Car,” “Alcohol and Old Lace,” “Divorce Mountain Style,” “The Sermon For Today” — I’ll watch any of those anytime they come on, and I’ve had them memorized for 30 years. And episode-to-episode, there are so many hilarious, quiet moments between Don Knotts and Andy Griffith that are so true to life. in all of my TV brain, I can’t think of anything else quite like it. You should give it a look one day.
I have been telling my family for years this very commentary that you have provided. Thank you for justify my hypothesis. 🙂 Good work.