First and Last: How The Andy Griffith Show’s Wholesomeness Is Hard to Shake

Tristan Ettleman
9 min readJan 22, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The eighth installment features THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, created by Sheldon Leonard. The show ran for eight seasons from 1960 to 1968 across 249 episodes, the first being “The New Housekeeper” and the last “Mayberry R.F.D.”

There’s no denying that nostalgia plays a large part in my enjoyment of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, as with many others then and now. Hearkening back to a romanticized America and especially a friendly South that never really existed, the long-running sitcom produced and set in the ’60s aimed for a vague timeless feel. That effect was felt by me as a child watching episode after episode with my grandma and it’s felt by me as an adult with hopefully more discerning critical taste. But I must admit there’s a wholesomeness to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW that’s hard to shake; as if pointedly against my better snarky and anti-homogenous nature, the denizens of Mayberry put up a united front of rural fantasy.

Andy Griffith had a bit of a meteoric rise before his titular series. The North Carolina actor and comedian had made a splash with a folksy character in 1955’s “No Time for Sergeants,” a teleplay aired as an episode of THE UNITED STATES STEEL HOUR (1953–1963), then reprised the role for a stage version later in the year and a 1958 feature film. Just before the latter, in 1957, he played the populist huckster in Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD, which features a Griffith performance that may be surprising to those used to Andy Taylor and/or Matlock. By 1960, the star had a definite identity as a country comic. Sheldon Leonard, the director, producer, and creator of THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW (1953–1964) and a prolific TV titan, used a 1960 episode of that series, starring Griffith in his Andy Taylor character arresting Thomas’ character for speeding through Mayberry, as a backdoor pilot for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, also created by Leonard.

Premiering later in 1960 with “The New Housekeeper,” directed by Leonard, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW would end up one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, ending its run at number one in the ratings, a rare feat. Running for eight seasons and 249 episodes, it also presented a modern template for the sitcom, complete with a spin-off, a sequel series, format-disrupting cast changes, and shark-jumping moments. But somehow, besides some particular late era episodes, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW proceeded with a tone that never totally eradicated the placidness and wackiness of the show’s best seasons, even as it concluded things unsatisfactorily with the finale and backdoor pilot for the sequel series of the same name, “Mayberry R.F.D.”

Unlike many other sitcoms of the era, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW didn’t just jump into what would be a normal episode but developed its premise in the premiere, at least so far as introducing a key character into its world. Andy Taylor is the sheriff of Mayberry, a small fictional North Carolina town. He is a widower with a son named Opie, played by Ron Howard of future and even greater, or at least different fame, as Richie Cunningham on HAPPY DAYS (1974–1984) and as a well-regarded director of a number of hits. The great Don Knotts plays Andy’s overeager and bumbling deputy Barney Fife, who also happens to be his cousin until that relation is phased out of the plot, to be replaced with the story that Andy and Barney have just been friends since childhood. Missing from this setup, at first, is Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier).

But “The New Housekeeper” opens with Opie upset that the Taylor housekeeper, Rose, is getting married and moving. This necessitates a new housekeeper and Andy’s Aunt Bee, who essentially raised him, moves in. In the sullen and change-fearing way of little kids, Opie isn’t happy with her presence. But after some goofy attempts from Andy to get her used to his son’s favorite things, like baseball and fishing, Bee decides to leave. Opie, of course, isn’t all that upset with her, and asks her to stay. Therefore, the premise of the rest of the show is essentially established, with the household trifecta augmented by Barney. Of course, many more characters come and go into the picture, from recurring actors to guest spots, but that’s the central cast.

At least it was until the sixth season, when THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW also happened to transition into color. Pursuing a career in film, Knotts left the show at the end of season five, although he continued to appear as a guest star here and there throughout the final three seasons. It’s unfortunate because Barney is indeed the best character on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Again, this may be the nostalgia talking because my grandma loved the show and specifically Knotts’ character, but there is an undeniable likability to Barney even as he embodies a kind of cheese typical to sitcoms of the era. But when Knotts left the show, or even when it focused on other goofy characters like Gomer Pyle or his cousin Goober, his skill at toeing the line of pure schtick and deeper comic prowess became even clearer.

Unfortunately, Barney doesn’t have much of a presence in “The New Housekeeper,” although his arrest of an old woman for jaywalking is pretty funny. Andy talks the situation down from its nearly outsized conclusion. Griffith’s persona of a relaxed law enforcement officer, itself a fantastical romanticization, became even more wise and humanistic as the show went on, until he became more of a background character in his own show. But earlier on, Andy Taylor was a bit goofier, closer in tone to the “No Time for Sergeants” character, which Griffith consciously steered away from into straight man territory for, well, pretty much any interaction with any other citizen of Mayberry.

The “vibes” of much of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW are present in “The New Housekeeper.” The environs of the studio set town and the bucolic nature of reality’s southern California standing in for North Carolina contribute to the series’ more relaxing comic nature. So too does the more generous spacing between laugh track moments, which shortened over the show’s life in accordance with an expanded array of eccentric characters. By the time of “Mayberry R.F.D.,” THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW had had its share of ridiculous episode premises and Flanderizations of already wacky characters.

The most obvious development between the premiere and the finale is the addition of color, introduced as mentioned at the beginning of season six. It gives a pleasing richness to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s look. But as the story of “Mayberry R.F.D.” continues, it becomes clear that the series’ title star is being phased out. The episode focuses almost entirely on Sam Jones (Ken Berry), a farmer and another widower with a young son, this one named Mike (Buddy Foster). As he explains to Andy at the train station, he is awaiting an old Italian friend who he met when stationed overseas, Mario Vincente (Gabriele Tinti). Mario is arriving to work on the farm, but when he shows up with his father (Bruno Della Santina) and sister Sophia (Letícia Román), Sam is distraught at the idea of having to pay and handle two extra workers. As it turns out, these wacky Italians also have “weird” ways of cooking things and accidentally destructive tendencies when operating tractors.

It’s all so broad and out-of-step with THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, at least the earlier seasons of it. Season eight had already featured “A Trip to Mexico” and “Howard’s New Life,” the latter seeing the meek county clerk and striving intellectual played by Jack Dodson, introduced in season five, relocate to a Caribbean island for an episode. This story even featured Harry Dean Stanton, while two late-era ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW episodes also starred an up-and-coming Jack Nicholson.

In any event, the exoticization of the series and the escalation of its humor into ridiculous territory isn’t totally without redeeming qualities, and indeed, it’s not like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was ever some kind of sobering viewing experience. But the way it’s all played for “Mayberry R.F.D.” as the set-up for a new premise, which by the way was mostly abandoned as the sequel series of the same name dropped the Italian fish-out-of-water comedy angle and just focused on Sam, Mike, and established Mayberry-ans, feels cheap and a disservice to the show’s long run.

Technically, many of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s recurring characters appear in the finale. Aunt Bee hosts a town hall meeting for the immigrants, Goober and Howard talk to the newcomers on the street, and Andy’s established girlfriend Helen Crump is hospitable. But with so much of the comedy taking place on the Jones farm, “Mayberry R.F.D.” doesn’t feel like a commemorative ending, especially since Opie doesn’t even appear at all even though he never left the show. It would have been nice to somehow get Knotts back as Barney or even Jim Nabors as Gomer, who was still the star of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW spin-off GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C. (1964–1969).

It may be a bit silly to take too much issue with how a sitcom ended just over 55 years ago, but part of my frustration stems from how THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was part of a new-ish trend of shows ending with at least some concerted intent, instead of just another episode. However, with the periphery of the characters that made the show what it was in “Mayberry R.F.D.,” perhaps a routine story would have been more fitting. The series MAYBERRY R.F.D. would run from 1968 to 1971 before it was canceled along with CBS’ other rural sitcoms and dramas as part of what was called “the rural purge,” an attempt to rebrand the network as more urban. Andy Taylor and Helen Crump get married and move in its first episode, making a few guest appearances over the three seasons, and characters like Goober and Howard stick around, with Aunt Bee serving as the Jones housekeeper for just the first season. The full cast of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW would reunite for the 1986 television movie RETURN TO MAYBERRY, right around the start of what would become the successful legal drama starring Griffith, MATLOCK (1986–1995).

I provide this stream of subsequent projects because that’s all that “Mayberry R.F.D.” (the episode) seems to impart today. It’s a bit of trivia and a minor footnote to close out one of the more genuinely heartwarming sitcoms of its day. “The New Housekeeper” was by no means one of the greatest ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW episodes, but its balance of broad comedy and quiet moments of reflection is more on par with how the series wormed its way into my nostalgic heart. The way the show expanded its roster of eclectic Mayberry citizens, like the heretofore unmentioned Floyd the barber, did lead it to a place of almost self-parody, but its characters were defined and slightly developed for maximum likability. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW will always be an appealing slice of Americana to me, even as I recognize its place in an era of oversimplified television. But if there’s anything the great sitcoms do well, it’s provide an idealized pocket dimension where problems are solved with humor and heart in about 25 minutes.