I grew up not so much watching the show as experiencing it in my home. My mother would be cooking in the kitchen, the range hood running loudly, as she whipped up a pot of peas or collards, and in the living room would be the sound of Andy and Barney’s hijinks accompanied by the Douglass laugh track. Our dog would laze on the carpet, his eyes squinting in the late afternoon sunlight coming through the blinds, while the television played to no one and everyone all at once. With little variation, this was the scene every weekday afternoon.
I like to think everybody in Macon to this day experiences the show like I did — as an integral part of life in central Georgia. I had already grown familiar with nearly every episode by the time I reached my teen years. My parents parroted jokes taken from the show at appropriate moments. They would mimic Ernest T. Bass and bemoan Andy’s decision to date Helen Crump in the middle seasons. When someone we knew acted haughty and self-absorbed, we referred to them privately as a “Barney Fife.” The sitcom was printed deeply into my psychology — how deeply I only discovered years later.
If you were to ask me as a child if I enjoyed the series, I would not have known how to respond. It was like air to me — a given or an absolute. In retrospect, it seemed as inseparable from my experience as my home or my school or my family. Only when I left for college did I reflect on the show and realize it wasn’t a given or a fundamental. It was merely a television show from the ’60s about life in a small rural town, and gradually I grew to consider it a hick form of entertainment. It represented backwardness, and no college student at a large liberal arts university wants to appear backward to his peers. So I tossed it out of my mind and only remembered it when I returned home to visit.
During a period of self-imposed exile, I moved back to Macon after college. Living with my parents and my English degree, I marveled at how little had actually changed since I left. My mother still cooked the same Southern dishes, my father still grew the same summer vegetables, and Sheriff Andy Taylor, portrayed brilliantly by Griffith, visited the home every late afternoon.
At this point in my life, when I realized the cool, apathetic version of myself I had fabricated in college was counterfeit, I actually started watching The Andy Griffith Show — really watching it with a critical eye. And I learned about myself, my family, and the twin ideologies of progress and nostalgia, which have often been bitter rivals — at least in the South.
The Andy Griffith Show was a nostalgic series from the beginning. It’s been considered a lieu de mémoire, a site of memory whereby the South can recapture what has been lost with time. During its initial run, it provoked nostalgia in viewers by depicting a sleepy town populated by citizens who drove ponton-style cars and talked on candlestick phones. Today the series serves as a kind of mediated nostalgia, a portal into a time period that certainly didn’t exist in the American 1960s. Watching it, I realized, made me nostalgic for a time that never existed. To put a spin on an old idiom, The Andy Griffith Show is nostalgia all the way down.
Though the nostalgia factor popularized the series from the beginning, part of the show’s success can be attributed to Sheriff Andy Taylor’s measured, virtuous demeanor. He is neither hawkish nor by the book. He doesn’t carry a gun, nor does he get his feathers ruffled over minor problems in the town. He takes his job seriously but not at the expense of his bedrock values: caring for his son, helping others, striving to be good.
In the early seasons, Andy plays a hayseed lawman with an aw-shucks disposition. He is often the butt of jokes and too much of a simp to see the wool being pulled over his eyes. His honesty and down-home values usually win out in the end, but he at bottom is a caricature of the Southern rube that appeared in shows of the time like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres.
By season two, Andy had undergone a change. He was no longer the naïve hick figure Griffith had mastered during his early comedic training as a monologist. He had grown weary, slightly agitated by the townspeople, yet still ready to fight for them and make the town better. He was more willing to tolerate the town gossips, like a patient elder, than to laugh with them and join in their carrying-on. He seemed above the town yet still very much a part of it, embedded in its fabric, reared within it. Perhaps he had come to terms with his job as a small-town sheriff or with the possibility that he may never find a partner to replace his late wife (to my parents’ dismay, he eventually married Helen Crump). It was as if he had learned of the social and political battles raging outside Mayberry in the late 1960s and just didn’t have the heart to tell his carefree citizens, whose only worry was the big choir concert at the end of the week or the large shipment of gold passing through town.
Still, throughout the entire series, Andy operates on a basic moral premise: the townspeople come first. He is a case-by-case lawman who eschews broad theories in favor of local solutions. He fights hard to keep the bureaucracy embodied in the hyperactive zealotry of Barney Fife at bay. Several recycled plots involve outsiders coming to Mayberry in order to impose some kind of order on the town, only for Andy to teach them his ways.
In the fourth episode of the first season, “Ellie Comes to Town,” a new pharmacist played by Elinor Donahue is hired to help run Mayberry’s drugstore, and she refuses to refill the medication for Emma, an elderly hypochondriac, without a prescription. At the end of the episode, Ellie caves and gives Emma the pills, which, she reveals to Andy, are actually placebos. Confused, Andy asks why she refrained from giving Emma the pills knowing they were useless. “Because I’m a pharmacist,” she replies, “and there are certain prescribed rules I’m sworn to follow.” Andy admits rules are crucial, but urges Ellie to remember the people beneath the rules. After the conversation, Andy sees a car parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant. In a typical show twist, Ellie uses Andy’s logic of the “human equation” against him. He shouldn’t write a ticket, she tells him; think of the person who might have parked hastily because of an emergency. Andy refrains, and Ellie, having duped the simple but honest sheriff, hops in the car in question and drives away.
This setup appears time and again throughout the series, but most often the figure representing the impersonal logic of protocol is Andy’s deputy, Barney Fife. Played by the immensely talented Don Knotts, Barney is both the comedic relief and bureaucratic foil to Andy’s localism. Running gags are built upon Barney’s trigger-happy nervousness and open love of the Law, with all its binding rules and jargon. He often urges Andy to modernize, to embrace the latest crime-fighting methods and gadgets. Barney’s flaw — and what makes him hilarious — is that he tries too hard to be a serious police officer in a rural town untouched by hard crime. He quotes legal codes to Andy, who either doesn’t know or has forgotten them. Andy doesn’t need to remember the technical name for a minor offense. He understands that townspeople, not codes, are the governing factor, even if that logic sometimes backfires on him.
Watching this show as an older viewer, I came to realize that Andy and Barney symbolize two competing ways of life that struggled against one another in the 20th century and continue to do so today. Whereas I used to consider Andy and the people of Mayberry simpletons in a whitewashed town, I grew attuned to the complex dynamic between what Andy and Barney represent. I understood why my parents, in particular, were so drawn to the series. What they see when they watch the show is a glimpse into their own past, an excursion into the deepest trenches of memory. These were Southern characters that reminded them of their own family. My parents were raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, in a time when everyone in the small town knew the local law enforcement and each other. I often marvel at the similarities between my father’s stories of his working-class upbringing and the various slapstick situations Andy and Barney get themselves into. Ultimately, my parents watch the show because the world Mayberry represents has vanished, and they witnessed it happen.
Several major social and political events occurred before, during, and right after the run of The Andy Griffith Show — none of which are explicitly mentioned in the episodes. The show avoids the Cold War, civil rights, the Kennedy assassination, and so on, but it does paint bureaucracy, which was revving up in the United States by the early 1970s, as a joke.
Three years after the show was canceled, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. gave a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce outlining a vision of a completely deregulated business sector, one in which corporations could be free to do whatever they want without pesky leftists like Ralph Nader intervening. By the dawn of the 1980s, the free market became synonymous with democracy, and the managerial bureaucracy first pioneered by the corporate sector spread its tendrils into every part of modern life, from the state to the very biology of citizens. Health, law, finance, education, and the like became bureaucratized. A professional managerial class took shape to ensure capital flowed correctly and that people weren’t standing in its way. The corporate-government complex drained the life out of entire towns, and power, often measured in terms of financial capital, became concentrated in large metropolitan centers.
The Andy Taylors of the world were ousted from their positions. They were too plain-dealing and slow to enforce protocol. When corporate bureaucrats invented paperwork, the Andy Taylors had either laughed it off or did the bare minimum to satisfy the state. Most of the time, there would be no need to file a report because Andy knew everyone in town.
But corporations offered Mayberry the future. The townspeople were promised better paying jobs at the new startups that moved in. They were enticed by the gadgets the companies sold to them. When the Mega Marts planted their multi-acre-spanning structures at the edge of town, the citizens of Mayberry all bought new cars to drive to them. And the superstores had everything: produce, meat, toiletries, clothes, you name it. And they were open 24 hours a day. The local store in town closed at five.
The Andy Taylors of the world were just too behind the times. What about an app that predicted criminal behavior? Well, Andy would have laughed that off too. They didn’t have hard criminals in Mayberry.
But when the jobs disappeared because of open trade between Mayberry and every other city in the world, the citizens turned desperate. The lethal combination of white flight and prescription painkillers widened the gap between the haves and a newly forming permanent underclass. Mayberry needed an administrator, someone who treated business seriously. They needed a strong man who knew the rules and enforced them, someone who promised to crack down hard on all the crime and whose neurotic, rule-obsessed behavior many mistook for progressive leadership. Someone who dreamt of protocol coming to Mayberry and who was the first to point Andy Taylor to the door while accepting loads of state money to finance wiretaps, cameras, and military-grade weaponry. The corporate state wanted Barney Fife in command. And the people, though perhaps hesitant at first, learned to live with him.
Though Andy exhibits strength and virtue, he is not hotheaded. Nor is he the brawny hero that busts in at the last minute with guns blazing to vanquish the villain, who almost pulls off the caper. It may take him until the last minute to carry out his plan, but he does not represent the kind of heroic machismo so prevalent in superhero films today. More often than not Andy fights with his mind, inasmuch as he fights at all. He is strong in a silent way, a stoic fortitude without the sturm und drang of Brando or the social Darwinism of late-career John Wayne.
Barney, on the other hand, is loud and quick to flashes of emotion. His wiry frame and nervous energy make him a wreck of a deputy, and it’s hilarious to watch him and Andy at odds, however low the stakes. Barney is a ludicrous figure, a clown, blissfully unaware of his arrogance, insecure and egotistical, and desirous of the kind of rules designed to control situations without thought. He exemplifies the neoliberal manager, the one that assumed control in the late 20th century. And though this figure was initially lampooned in American media, it came to be accepted as the only one to rule over a complex world.
When several American television networks dropped most of the country-themed programming in the early 1970s — a move referred to as the “rural purge” — the likelihood that another Andy Taylor or Mayberry might be seen on TV was slimmed. In an attempt to market to suburban and urban audiences, major television networks mostly forgot about aging and rural populations. Suddenly there were fewer shows reflecting their lives. The kneejerk reaction is to consider rural audiences and their shows hillbilly, retrograde, simple-minded, or even racist. But it would also be callous to ignore other audiences altogether just to have around-the-clock Westerns and episodes of Red Skelton.
I began to wonder what my parents would have watched without reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. Could it be, like some have said, that people enjoy the series because it presents a whitewashed utopia, a conservative paradise before Soul Train, MTV, and BET?
In her article “Remembering Mayberry in White and Black,” memory studies scholar Kathleen McElroy writes about African Americans like herself who identify with The Andy Griffith Show even though only one episode in the entire series features a black actor with a speaking part (“a Chopin-playing football coach in Season 7,” McElroy notes). She cites several black writers who watch the series because it reflects their own experiences living in the rural South and who were not alienated by the paucity of black cast members. But even though some African-American viewers like McElroy conjure these “extra-memories,” as she calls them, to “complement […] Mayberry’s narrative,” what about the white viewers who voted for Donald Trump because they believed him to be a white, wealthy savior who could return the country to the conservative 1950s — in other words, to a time before civil rights? Why should anyone have to fill in the gaps of a television series with extra-memories to enjoy it?
A site of both memory and oblivion, The Andy Griffith Show can be pleasing to some and uncomfortable to others. It’s a show that some might enjoy because it presents a white utopia and one that others can identify with because of its themes of doing good, serving communities, and reducing one’s ego. And viewers like McElroy and the writers she cites in her essay manage this tension by conjuring extra-memories to account for the erasure.
It is possible that some people see in Donald Trump’s nativist message a return to Mayberry. But those who may suppose that miss the entire point of the series and equally misunderstand the philosophy of the character Andy Taylor.
Writing for The Awl, Shani O. Hilton mentions that Griffith was often called “white trash” as a kid. When he created his series, Griffith didn’t “take a crack at edgier storylines involving race or gender,” which other series of the time did and usually failed offensively. Instead, he crafted a show about life in a small, working-class town where a given day’s itinerary might include little more than napping and watching the evening’s program on television. Mayberry is obviously utopian and overwhelmingly white, but Sheriff Andy Taylor not only believes society can always be made better but also understands no social project grand or local could usher in some kind of everlasting peace. The best you could do in Mayberry is good enough, and doing good is a daily job. Mad grabs for power are laughed at, which is why I laugh at Barney’s antics right along with the citizens of Mayberry.
Attempting to recreate Mayberry by focusing on its whiteness can only lead to disaster. We are currently living through a period in which many believe in the social project to make America great again, but this is only a Trumpist mission to reshape the country into a hostile Mayberry, one that claims to support small-town values but enforces them by erecting border walls and renditioning “aliens” across state lines. But Trump is the mountebank, the snake oil salesman who could never outwit a true Southerner like Andy Taylor. He may try to prey upon the people’s fear of others, but he is no match for Andy’s principled reverse psychology.
When I drive through the small towns of Georgia, I try to imagine I’m driving through the Mayberrys of the state. But I know deep down those places never really existed, and the closest analogues to them have all but vanished. For some, the nearest thing to a small town like Mayberry was a facade papering over a horrifying social reality structured by Jim Crow and xenophobia. And today, opioids are razing many of those small towns to the ground. Even Andy Griffith’s hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina, isn’t immune from certain devastation.
Desperate, nostalgic grabs for the past in order to reinstall a more intolerant social reality can seduce many into believing that outgroups caused the instability in the first place. And this tired refrain is kicking up again in the 21st century.
But every weekday afternoon at 5:30, my hometown of Macon visits Mayberry, a town they look to as the measure of rural Southern life. My initial view of the show as totally backward and racist is a grave misreading matched only by the belief that to become a Mayberry a town must be free of people outside white, cisnormative binaries. When “politically incorrect” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp brandished firearms and fetishized violence against immigrants during his campaign as means to appeal to the same people tuning into Andy Griffith every weekday, then it’s clear we are very far indeed from the philosophy of Andy Taylor. Andy kept his sidearm unloaded in his house. And he welcomed the company of strangers.
Andy Taylor would recognize the whiff of Trump and peg him a hotshot trying too hard to be high and mighty. He would be suspicious of his plastic smile and cruelty toward others. Barney might take to Trump’s moneyed swagger, but Andy would see right through his act, as he always did with con men. Still, like the good sheriff none of us deserve, he would ask him to stay for dinner.
Grafton Tanner is the author of Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. His latest book, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech, will be published with Zero Books in 2020.