Commentary: The Debt We Owe to Opie

Call it old-fashioned or overly nostalgic, but returning to Mayberry to revisit “The Andy Griffith Show” might be just what is needed at this challenging, uncertain time.

Occasionally, I binge watch TV Land. If I’m being completely honest, it’s a bit more than occasionally. While I avoid making blanket statements, in this matter I’ll make an exception: every single episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” teaches a simple but very valuable life lesson. In doubt? Watch them again. You’ll rediscover lessons learned for which we could all use a refresher course. There’s actually no better time than the present, with all its challenges and uncertainties.

Long before the story even begins, the catchy whistled theme song at the start of every episode immediately invites participation. The show wants us to come along for the ride.  As Sheriff Taylor and Opie make their way to their favorite fishing hole, it leaves no doubt in our mind that we will accept the invitation—time after time. For the next thirty minutes, Mayberry beckons us to another time that could very well be this current moment, if we are open to it. But that’s the hard part: being open to it. 

We may tend toward incredulity that there is any possibility of returning to the gifts so abundantly found in this nostalgic depiction of rural America. But have no doubts about it; they are there and waiting for us to revisit and renew.

Lessons Learned, Episode by Episode

The first episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” aired in the fall of 1960, titled “The New Housekeeper.” When the old housekeeper, Rose, marries and moves away, Sheriff Taylor’s Aunt Bee comes to take her place. For a variety of reasons, Opie is not accepting of Aunt Bee, until he recognizes that she needs to at least be given a chance, in spite of her differences from Rose. The willingness to accept those who are different from what we know is the core of what makes each of us human.

In “The Guitar Player,” Andy helps a talented musician friend get a chance at stardom.  Again, what was presented then, many years ago, continues today, especially with the abundance of creative talent found throughout rural America: local writers, artists, and musicians seeking opportunities that will open new doors for them to explore—and new audiences to discover their talents.

When Andy is disappointed in the meager amount of money that Opie donates to a charity drive in town, he quickly retreats once he discovers the reason why. “Opie’s Charity” becomes a lesson in not jumping to conclusions, in finding out the truth before making a judgment call. That lesson is more relevant today than ever.

When Ellie Walker, the town pharmacist, decides to run for town council in “Ellie for Council,” a battle of the sexes ensues, and what is learned on both sides continues today.  The fight for equality on every level is a lesson learned and re-learned. It can be especially evident throughout rural America and perhaps fought hardest throughout that part of this country.

Episode after episode, we find ourselves learning and learning again what it means to be human, to have flaws, and how to correct those flaws. There’s more, like how to welcome a stranger (“The Christmas Story” and “Stranger in Town”), how to attempt reconciliation (“Andy the Marriage Counselor”), how to recognize the importance of being needed (“Andy and Opie, Housekeepers”), and how to increase confidence and self-esteem (“Ellie Saves a Female”).

Behind the scenes of The Andy Griffith Show. (Source: Flickr)

All of these simple, yet so very relevant lessons were learned in just the first season. The show went on to air for seven more seasons, ending in the spring of 1968. Issues of bullying, disregard for the law, social discrimination, and bad sportsmanship are recognized for what they truly are and then dissected in the most unassuming ways, until a solution is found. And, yes, it always works. There is no ambiguity. It’s crystal clear, but then so much of what is made difficult in large cities and across the country today can be simplified throughout rural America, when folks living in smaller communities are encouraged to peel back the layers of a problem and reach its human core. 

While we can’t “go back” to the era of Mayberry, the episodes remind us that the lessons we learned can be taken forward. 

Mayberry’s Magnum Opus?

While it would, indeed, be more than a bit difficult to choose a favorite episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Man in a Hurry” surfaces again and again. The episode wastes no time in focusing on something golden about rural America: the importance of taking a break from the travails of daily life, relaxing, enjoying time with friends, sharing a meal, and recognizing the beauty in every human being and every gifted moment. 

Perhaps the episode that best defines the attraction to rural living is one that appears in the final season of the show, “Howard’s New Life,” when he decides to leave Mayberry for an island on the Caribbean. It doesn’t take long for him to discover that the grass is not always greener on the other side. He returns to Mayberry with a newfound appreciation for all things simple and certain, yet knowing that there will always be challenges to meet and overcome, not to be belabored and become tiresome.

As political strife continues to run rampant throughout the world, it would serve us all well to revisit the highest rated episode in the history of the series, “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting,” where major decisions are reached by world leaders, not in an elaborate setting that Barney had hoped to provide, but amid the warm welcome that always emanated from the living room, the small kitchen, and the austere accommodations found at the Taylor’s house in Mayberry.

Part of what made and continues to make episodes from “The Andy Griffith Show” timeless rests on the shoulders of its belief that we can bring out the best in each other, whether a lesson is being imparted by Opie, Andy, Aunt Bee, or Barney. What was most relevant was that the lesson was received and practiced. It never had to be re-learned. Somehow, its staying power was relentless. And that made all the difference and will continue to do so.

James Earl Jones, a timeless talent himself, once said, “I think the extent to which I have any balance at all, any mental balance, is because of being a farm kid and being raised in those isolated rural areas.” The line-up of confident winks from the characters of “The Andy Griffith Show” is as certain, bright as a shining star in the night sky.

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