A Terrific American
Ode to Sheriff Taylor
If you think The Andy Griffith show was just about apple-pie values, you weren't paying attention.
People who think The Andy Griffith Show was just about country corn, some kind of affirmation of small-town and simple and apple-pie values during a decade when the broader culture was ripping at the flesh of those values, weren't watching very closely. TAGS was a weekly sermon in liberal civic-republican values, and Mayberry was a sort of civic-republican valhalla, a place where whatever else happened (and didn't happen), the person who came out on the wrong end of the stick was always the one who didn't do his share for the community.
It might have been the big-city shyster passing through. It might have been farmer who wouldn't share his harvest when times were tight. It was often Barney Fife, and it was no accident that the by-the-book, law-and-order enforcer manque was the show's biggest boob and target (Don Knotts, five straight Emmys: Still a record!). It was sometimes Andy himself, as when he poked fun at Elinor Donohue after she vowed to run for office. Those days being those days, of course, Donohue decided in the end that she'd made her point and agreed that perhaps that was man's work after all, but not until Andy had learned his lesson, too.
The other standard plot trajectory involved bringing an outsider into the community. The odd and insular clan who lived way out in the hollers and frightened people with their coarse ways and odors but turned out to be beautiful musicians; the farmer who dressed his daughter like a boy because she looked too much like her mother and it was just too painful for him to see her. He relents in the end, and the community has changed him.
I recall the very occasional overt political message. There was an episode when Opie and his buddies are being played by a hobo who has the boys bringing him apple pies and even money. Opie, Andy says: Charity is a good thing, but this man is conning you, and besides, to help people like him is what we pay taxes for.The whole monologue was certainly as striking a defense of the public weal as I've ever seen on a sitcom.
It being the South in the early 1960s, there was one bridge Griffith never crossed. Advertisers would have killed the show. Every so often, there was a black woman or man in the chorus of townsfolk, nodding somberly as Andy delivered the show's closing wisdom, seeming to be as one with their fellow Mayberryans. But that was as far as that could go.
I wasn't surprised to learn many years later that Griffith was indeed a rock-solid liberal. He had to have been, now that I thought about it, to have played Lonesome Rhodes with that kind of wit and spark in A Face in the Crowd, when he embodied the smiling face of American fascism. That video Griffith made for Obama with Ron Howard (sorry, I can't find it) was priceless. And he made a pro-Obama health care ad. His poll numbers in the state went down over that one, I read. Some state Democrats wanted him to run against Jesse Helms. He even polled ahead of Helms, but he couldn't be enticed.
He was just a terrific American.