In a medium whose appeal lies largely in the reliable comfort of self-contained worlds, The Andy Griffith Show created one of the most beloved. The North Carolinian idyll of Mayberry has been cemented in popular consciousness as shorthand for bucolic Americana. Mayberry is one in a series of Cities on a Hill embraced by U.S. popular culture, a dream that couldn’t be maintained forever.
The very concept of change was anathema to Mayberry, and the beginning of Season Five delivered a grim portent: Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) was drafted into a spin-off and replaced by his brother Goober (George Lindsey). The start of the sixth season brought color, a pubescent Opie (Ronny Howard) and, most importantly, the loss of comic focal point Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts).
Prior to Barney’s departure, the show remained largely intact, and 32 episodes of Season Five (now released to DVD) demonstrate its timelessness. Generally this was accomplished by a fine cast of characters—including Andy (Andy Griffith), Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier)—who came alive within a detailed community. Each episode revolves around a single story, which unfolds at a relaxed pace, and drama as well as comedy.
This comedy takes various forms. The satire in the episode called “TV or Not TV” has writers Art Baer and Ben Joelson poking fun at their bosses when some network executives arrive in Mayberry, interested in creating a show about Andy Taylor; actually, they’re planning to rob the bank. In the hilarious “The Rehabilitation of Otis,” Barney decides Otis (Hal Smith) needs psychological help for his alcoholism, which he will provide based on a magazine article. The show also managed freewheeling comedy, as in the final good Andy/Barney episode, which has the two friends arresting Mt. Pilot’s “Fun Girls” to keep them away from Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) and Helen (Aneta Corsaut).
The less imaginative episodes are constructed as moral tales, sweet and gentle, but also simplistic. Worse, almost all the characters besides Andy, who does the moralizing, come across as mildly retarded. Barney had to be instructed how to deal with bullies in “Barney’s Uniform,” and Bea had to confront the fact that she couldn’t play the lead in the community theater production in “The Pageant.” This infantilization is most blatant in Barney. For all of Knotts’ brilliant and loving characterization, Barney is a shuffling child in relation to Griffith’s father figure. Barney’s streak of deep, if misguided compassion is reduced to gross ineptitude, his friendship with Andy typically upended by Taylor’s condescension.
Barney’s departure from Mayberry starts slowly. Throughout the fifth season, he takes mysterious leaves of absence. In “Opie and Arithmetic,” he is concerned about the boy’s grades, but in the following episode, “Opie and the Carnival,” he’s nowhere to be found to counsel him. That carnival drifts into town à la Something Wicked This Way Comes and in the next episode, the last of the season, it spits out a bumbling sideshow assistant (Jerry Van Dyke), who attempts to take Barney’s place.
Actually, Andy threatens to leave for Raleigh first, earlier in the season when he’s offered a job as a detective in the episode “Goodbye Sheriff Taylor.” Barney immediately grasps the seismic shift such an event would have on Mayberry, screeching in his West Virginia drawl, “All the times we’ve spent together, goin’ fishing, and double datin’, and kiddin’ around. I don’t know what’s going to happen to law and order around here.”
Their relationship grounds The Andy Griffith Show, and is reportedly mirrored by Griffith and Knotts’ real-life, long-time friendship. In one of his final scenes, Barney gets ready to leave the Taylor home, saying, “Thanks for the supper, Aunt Bea. It’s delicious, as usual.” Knotts’ voice cracks and he turns away from the camera. Understood now as the end of his time in Mayberry, after watching the previous episodes numbered on the DVD, the scene is poignant. Watched out of sequence, without context (say, in a tv rerun), it means nothing. It is what it was: a passing moment. And then he was gone.