Windmill in a Tornado
The Andy Griffith Show is an institution. A situation comedy that captures America’s yearning for lost innocence, for small-town safety and community, it offers the possibility that days might be spent fishing. In Mayberry, the worst criminals are well-intentioned drunks and the only real threats come in the form of scam artist interlopers from the big city. That the homespun wisdom doesn’t seem trite is due in large part to the charm of the man himself. Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor raises adorable son Opie (Ron Howard), plays straight man to Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), and eats Aunt Bee’s (Frances Bavier) apple pie. Now available on DVD, Season Two showcases the crew in fine form.
While Opie’s lessons are premised on traditional respect for honesty, God, and the law, the series avoids nostalgic treacle through some serious quirkiness. Andy models for his son a familiar Southern white masculinity—folksy and decent. But he’s surrounded by alternative possibilities, ranging from Barney to Floyd the barber (Howard McNear) to Otis (Hal Smith). Barney frequently tries to teach Opie fatherly lessons too, but he’s so clearly designated a comic distraction that he becomes the butt of humor that depends on effeminizing him.
While Barney’s marginality reinforces Andy’s norm by contrast, their coupledom is consistent. Andy plays the solid but fair father, Barney’s the fussbudgety mother. Positioned like an old married couple, these bonded bachelors keep women at the edges of their lives. Though he goes home to Opie and Aunt Bee (not even the grandmother, she never fully takes the place of the absent mother), Andy maintains connection with his better half. The Cleavers, this ain’t.
This dynamic is evident in a typical episode, “Opie and the Bully,” where a bully stops Opie every day and takes his milk money. As Opie keeps asking everyone for extra milk money, an anxious Barney follows him, hiding on a nearby porch, where he peers through a hole in a morning newspaper. When he reports back to Andy and wants to step in (balling his fists and acting nerdishly bellicose), Andy insists Opie must learn to fend for himself.
To that end, Andy plays normal dad: he takes his son fishing and recounts his own experience of resisting toughs: take the hit, laugh, then punch back “like a windmill in a tornado.” Andy sums up his parenting philosophy by saying, “I don’t want him to be the kind of boy who goes looking for fights, but I don’t want him to run from one when he’s in the right.” This advice works for Opie, and when he trounces the bully, he wears his black eye like a badge of honor.
Andy’s love life also marks the series’ departure from sitcom stereotypes. While we sometimes see him dating or verbally sparring (barely flirting) with women (like guest star Barbara Eden in one episode), those plotlines are few and far between. In “Wedding Bells for Aunt Bee,” the issue of single fatherhood and Andy’s seeming lack of interest in finding a mother for Opie are displaced onto the elderly Southern doyenne. She makes up an imaginary suitor so Andy can turn his attention from her to finding his own wife. Here, the show invents an alibi for Andy’s disinterest (taking care of his unmarried female relative) and turns it into a comic storyline, again avoiding male-female romance.
This odd dancing around norms also occurs with regard to Andy’s authority. Certainly, the series reinforces a sense of absolute confidence in systems of law enforcement, justice, and local government. But it also gently questions how authority works. “Andy and the Woman Speeder” identifies the consolidation of too much power in one person’s hands as a potential problem. Andy gives a speeding ticket to a magazine writer, Elizabeth (Jean Hagen), passing through on her way back to DC. When she wants to appeal the ticket (saying he’s set up a speed trap), Andy takes her to the station, where he informs her he’s also the justice of the peace. As he increases the fine for her contempt of court, she wants to appeal to yet another authority, so he puts her in jail for the night to wait for Mayor’s Court the next day.
Affirming the idea that his use of power is benevolent, Andy sends Aunt Bee to care for the “stubborn female” (because the law requires a female warden) and tells Barney to “lock her up and buy some pink towels.” At the hearing the next day, Andy’s witnesses, including Barney, Opie, and Floyd, abandon him due to Elizabeth’s charms, and she gets off. Andy decries the miscarriage of justice, and his principled stand makes Elizabeth feel so badly that she speeds again while leaving, so he can charge her the original fine. Her protest against even the potential for corruption is allayed by the idea that Andy is an exemplary holder of justice.
Such individual integrity grounds The Andy Griffith Show. And so the series’ allowances for non-traditional family life and challenges to conventional authority and gender roles never seem so troubling as they might have.