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Why we need our slice of Mayberry

By Diane Werts, Special to CNN
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Diane Werts notes "The Andy Griffith Show" was No. 1 in 1968
  • In an era of upheaval, Americans turned to Mayberry, she says
  • Who wouldn't choose Mayberry over crime, war and societal chaos? she says

Editor's note: Diane Werts is managing editor of TVWorthWatching.com and writes about TV for Newsday.

(CNN) -- Looks like we'd all like to live in Mayberry.

Fifty years later, we're still watching "The Andy Griffith Show." The '60s hit continues to air twice a day in TV Land's weekday schedule, at noon and 12:30 p.m. ET. (TV Land also has a July 4 marathon, Wednesday 8 a.m.-1 p.m. ET/PT; and a weekend tribute to its recently deceased star July 7-8, Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ET/PT.)

Andy Griffith created a mighty special place in his small-town TV comedy, which seems to have aired continually every day someplace since it left the CBS network in 1968. When the show ceased production, it ranked as prime-time's No. 1 series, after spending all eight of its network seasons in Nielsen's Top 10.

Mayberry was a town so comfortable and calm that Griffith's down-home Sheriff Andy Taylor hardly ever got to do any sheriff-ing. He mostly dispensed folksy wisdom to his motherless son, Opie, rode herd on his jittery sheriff, Barney Fife, and helped his Mayberry townsfolk keep on the straight and narrow and neighborly.

What we love about Andy Griffith

Diane Werts
Diane Werts
Andy Griffith, famous for his starring role in "The Andy Griffith Show," was an actor, director, producer and Grammy-winning Southern gospel singer and writer. He died Tuesday, July 3, at 86. Click through the gallery to see a glimpse of his career and life. Andy Griffith, famous for his starring role in "The Andy Griffith Show," was an actor, director, producer and Grammy-winning Southern gospel singer and writer. He died Tuesday, July 3, at 86. Click through the gallery to see a glimpse of his career and life.
Andy Griffith through the years
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Photos: Andy Griffith\'s life and career Photos: Andy Griffith's life and career
2006: Griffith, Howard recall their show
A co-star's crush: Andy Griffith dies
2011: Town where Andy Griffith grew up

Wait. This was TV's No. 1 series -- in 1968?

Hasn't the Vietnam era-1968 gone down in history as the year synonymous with social upheaval? Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. The "generation gap" widened. Hippies turned on and dropped out. Fists were raised at the Olympic Games. War protests raged.

And folksy Andy Griffith drew viewers in staggering numbers.

Perhaps it's really not so strange at all.

Who wouldn't rather live in the serene Mayberry of "TV land" than in Realtown USA, beset by crime, corruption, war, taxes and societal chaos? No wonder "The Andy Griffith Show" endures, far beyond the nostalgia for more "pivotal" TV landmarks such as "All in the Family" and "Roseanne."

There's even a "real" Mayberry, and it continues to draw vacationers. Griffith's hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, to this day operates the seven-days-a-week Andy Griffith Museum, filled with the actor's memorabilia, props, video and other attractions. (Be there for September 27-30's annual Mayberry Days!) Come sit a spell, take your shoes off, y'all come back now, y'hear?

OK, so we borrowed that last line from "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme song. Same difference. In fact, during "Andy Griffith's" run of 1960-68, "Hillbillies" was twice the nation's top-ranked show. The other years' Nielsen titles went to "Gunsmoke," to "Wagon Train," and (three times) to "Bonanza." Which just goes to show how much Americans wanted to be anywhere rather than Here and Now.

Those other top series still run on TV, but "The Andy Griffith Show" has turned out to be in a class by itself. Did citizens ever really live in idyllic small towns like Mayberry? Maybe we wish we did. Maybe we still want to. What was Connecticut's fictional Stars Hollow, the small-town setting for that 21st-century WB fave "Gilmore Girls," but a more elegantly and literately constructed Mayberry? Everybody knew everybody, and got along, and meant well, and everybody was witty and sophisticated.

'Andy Griffith' theme song also part of Americana

But Americans still seem to crave the more primitive version of Americana, as evidenced by the fact that everybody's favorite episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" are the ones in black-and-white. The show was filmed monochrome its first five seasons, the ones with Don Knotts as Barney Fife. Then when Knotts left the cast for the big screen ("The Incredible Mr. Limpet," anyone?), the show transitioned to color and lost much of its charm.

We liked Mayberry more as a timeless Everyplace than a DayGlo wannabe.

Here's another reason "The Andy Griffith Show" endures: It may be TV's first dramedy. There's a laugh track, yes, because it was filmed single-camera, rather than in a studio like most other Desilu-produced series after studio pioneer "I Love Lucy." Griffith insisted he wanted to be able to include exterior shots, remembering what the outdoors meant to him as a North Carolina kid. Indeed, what's the first image of the show that comes to mind? The whistling-theme opening credits, when Andy and son Opie are heading out to do some fishin' (no "g" here).

The "drama" quotient amped up, too, as Andy's initial portrayal of Sheriff Andy Taylor as a country bumpkin (watch the series' backdoor pilot as a 1960 episode of "Make Room for Daddy") quickly evolved into the town sage -- a dispenser of common-sense wisdom to the quirky characters who crossed his path in search of rational justice and cogent advice.

Don Knotts won the Emmys as wacky deputy Barney Fife. Andy Griffith gained legend as the straight man who made it all possible.

Think of Andy Griffith this way: Can you imagine a 300-channel TV universe without "The Andy Griffith Show" airing someplace every day?

Enough said. We all need our little slice of Mayberry.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Diane Werts.

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