Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry was smart, on top of being endlessly kind, and that was one of the marvels of the show at a time when unflattering prejudices about the South and some country folks were in vogue. To be sure, the South had done a lot to earn its reputation of being racist, but that was never the whole story. I have known scads of Southerners and people from rural settings all over who are very special.
Griffith himself seems to have been blessed with mightily moral characteristics. People who knew him have been telling obit writers, on the occasion of his death this week at age 86, what fine things he was always doing. He was a native of North Carolina who aimed for some career objectives he did not achieve while achieving others beyond expectation. And in his career he played characters who were nothing like wise, lovable Andy of Mayberry. We're reminded these roles were of villains who were cruel and vicious.
But I am old enough to remember his 1953 monologue on college football, in which he comes across as a yokel utterly likable through and through. You can revisit the routine on the Internet and hear him describing the game as a fight over a pumpkin in a cow pasture, and I defy you not to laugh. Griffith played a yokel again in the 1958 movie, "No Time for Sergeants," which I remember as being very funny, although I have not seen it in years.
Griffith stayed nice but quit being a yokel in "The Andy Griffith Show" of the 1960s. Of course, Barney Fife, as played by comedic genius Don Knotts, might be described as yokel-like, though much else was at play in his personality, such as a sense of self-importance perhaps compensating for a deeper sense of not measuring up. In the end, he would do what made sense, as is pointed out in an excellent July 4 New York Times piece by Neil Genzlinger.
So how does the Griffith show compare with TV fare today? I mostly watch current-events shows and sports. My wife and I do watch an occasional series and I surf the channels sometimes to see what is there. I supplement all of this by reading about TV, and here is my impression:
There's some splendid acting and artistic ability behind the best of today's shows. But many of the cable dramas and sitcoms are crude beyond belief; a great deal of both cable and broadcast is stupid beyond belief, and some of the reality shows are trashy beyond belief.
Nothing I have run across has the wholesomeness of the Griffith show, which is not the same as saying sitcoms should all be fashioned in that mode. It is instead a way of saying that we have drifted far from an entertainment world that could give us decent human beings always making final resort to decent behavior to solve their problems, with no untoward innuendo or sex scenes thrown in.
I miss my father, and, in a different way, I am going to miss Andy. I already miss Hollywood norms that could foster TV shows like the one named for him.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.