Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! As we wrap up coverage on the best of The Andy Griffith Show, this week’s companion entry finishes the figurative sentence by looking at the spin-off and direct continuation of the original series, Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-1971, CBS), with some brief thoughts about its trajectory — specifically how it relates to its superior, more classic predecessor — and a no-frills list of the offerings that I think exemplify each year’s strongest and/or most revealing. Although only the first of this three-season show has been released on DVD as of this publication, I have access to every episode and have indeed consulted them for this post. However, my interest in Mayberry R.F.D. is only tangential — I didn’t think I could fully discuss Andy Griffith without devoting a few paragraphs to this tonally similar extension. So, consider this a bonus post in our Andy Griffith study, but a much more casual one; after all, treating this series as an equal to the aforementioned would be unfair to both.
To that point, we have to start with a basic takeaway from Sitcom Tuesday: every season of this format past its 1962-’63 peak has seen a further erosion in the show’s command of its initial identity, and therefore its quality, for it’s never been adequately able to replace the positive attributes that were lost along the way. Accordingly, as Season Eight of Andy Griffith was that series’ weakest, the descent continues during Mayberry R.F.D., and while there are a few episodic highlights that may suggest otherwise (just as Season Seven of Griffith’s show had more gems than Six), each year of this extension is also progressively worse, as these largely bland characters are unable to motivate story, and the writers, though rotating, inevitably run out of ideas. Also, remember that most of the great things about Andy Griffith aren’t present here at all. For instance, Don Knotts’ Barney Fife — the best thing about Mayberry, ever — only guests in the series premiere, which serves as a transitional piece that sees Andy Taylor married off to Helen Crump, and is both the last entry with Ron Howard’s Opie and the first of only four shows from Season One that include Griffith. (He makes his farewell appearance, with Helen, in the second season premiere, when they return to show off their new baby.)
Now, while Andy’s usage at the end of his series left a lot to be desired, taking him out of Mayberry is still a loss — if only because of what he represented: the era where he did sweet family shows with warm, human moments. (You know, the kind that elevated the “warmedy” genre.) And when he, and his nuclear family unit, is replaced here by Ken Berry’s Sam Jones and his character’s son, Mike (Buddy Foster), we really come to appreciate the chemistry between Griffith and Howard and the sincerity with which their scenes were written, for the bond between the Joneses is far less developed and believable — as are their characters — and not even lingering housekeeper Aunt Bee, played by the still-delightful Frances Bavier, can help them. In fact, Sam might just be the dullest Mayberryian ever created, and remember that he’s got a lot of competition in the rest of the ensemble, which includes all the other recurring cast members from Season Eight: Goober (the replacement Gomer), Emmett (the replacement Floyd), and Howard (the replacement Barney), who all rise in prominence alongside Mayberry R.F.D.‘s new narrative focus: the town as a whole. Naturally, this has been a long time coming, for after Barney departed Andy Griffith, and the misbegotten attempt to fill his shoes with a pale imitation known as Warren was abandoned, the show lost a significant part of its identity — the workplace — and had to pivot its attentions elsewhere. And since the Taylor family shows were less emotionally insightful and effectual by then, devoting more time to the ensemble, and the dramatic/comedic opportunities reflected by small-town life, became a necessity.
This trend only sped up as Andy phased himself out, and unsurprisingly, everything about creator/producer/head writer Bob Ross’ idea for Mayberry R.F.D. suggests the culmination of this unspoken evolution, for by naming the spin-off after the town, he’s telling us what’s most important. Interestingly, though, the “R.F.D.” part of the title, which indicates an emphasis on the locale’s rurality — namely that the Joneses live on a farm — is a bit misleading, for as we’ve been seeing since the middle of the ’60s when the show began losing some of its more eccentric hillbilly characters (Otis, the Darlings, Ernest T. Bass) that simultaneously gave the series a North Carolinian flavor and some comedic grit into which it could sink its teeth, the scripts’ developing depiction of Mayberry has turned away from anything regional and countrified, instead aiming to reinforce merely the notion of this being the personification of small-town Americana, which you could find anywhere across the country — with a Main Street, barbershop, courthouse, etc. That continues here in Mayberry R.F.D., and it’s even more obvious now, for the metaphorical whitewashing of the town — particularly once CBS forced Ross to drop the Italian family intended as a fish-out-of-water contrast — yields less room for character to thrive, and the bland 78 episodes produced for this series are evidence to this fact.
However, I want to give credit where its due. One of the series’ only bold choices is the inclusion of its only prominent new (or somewhat new) character: Arlene Golonka’s Millie Swanson, the bubbly bake shop hostess who is a girlfriend for Sam and thus essentially serves the same function as Helen Crump, but with slightly more personality. Andy Griffith fans may remember that Golonka played a character named Millie Hutchins, a love interest for Howard, in two episodes of that series’ final season, and there’s debate in the fandom about whether or not the two Millies should be treated as separate characters. Personally, I think they’re basically the same, but because her use on the earlier show was so brief and she wasn’t introduced with Sam and Mike at the end of Eight as part of the spin-off package, I nevertheless consider her an entity designed, or simply fleshed out (if you prefer), for this series. And what’s more, I think she’s better served here as a character in her own right than in her two Andy Griffith outings, where she’s more a satellite of Howard’s and a means to a story’s end. That said, despite her more developed persona, she doesn’t really get very good stories on this show either, as the writers, just as with Helen and Ellie before her, have trouble writing for a young woman without having her be a cliché, or more to the point, an accessory to one of the male characters, so while she may be better defined, she’s ultimately no better used… Meanwhile, an even less successful new character is Alice Ghostley’s Alice, the Joneses new housekeeper in the third and final season, brought in to replace the retiring Bavier. We know from other shows of what Ghostley is capable, and Mayberry doesn’t afford her the chances to prove it.
By this time, 1970, the show was expressing the need for growth, following two seasons with little to no progression for the characters or the concept, so you’ll notice that there’s more of an effort in the final year — which is taken over before the halfway mark by new head writers Bob Mosher (Amos ‘N’ Andy, Leave It To Beaver, The Munsters) and former Andy Griffith scribe Charles Stewart (The Real McCoys, The Danny Thomas Show, Petticoat Junction) — to craft stories that address some of the changing cultural developments of the era, like the Women’s Lib movement. But of course, as in the declining years of Paul Henning’s so-called “hayseed” comedies, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, these attempts at timeliness are mostly perfunctory, for there’s no real character motivation behind the incorporation of such narrative themes, and the issues aren’t dealt with seriously or thoughtfully, as they were that same season on groundbreaking new shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and eventually, All In The Family… Speaking of which, I want to address the “Rural Purge” here quickly. As our study from several years ago revealed, the commonly believed notion that CBS axed all its shows with a rural setting and/or “Middle America” appeal in 1970 and 1971, as part of an effort to go after a more desirable (younger, urbane) demographic, is overly convenient. Actually, the FCC issued the “Prime Time Access Rule” in 1970, which limited the amount of time the networks could program nightly, and with each of the Big Three losing over three hours of programming a week, they sought to cut the shows that were the most expensive and/or least profitable… which happened to be the longest-running ones, many of them “rural” or with a middle-of-the-country base.
CBS was the most-watched network at the time and it was the trend-setter. So, when its very smart executives — including new president Bob Wood and the up-and-coming Fred Silverman — applied the demographic argument to explain why, for the first time, standards for renewal were higher (more than just a 30 share, it was only important to keep shows that ranked within the year’s Top 30 for total viewers, as opposed to the usual Top 40), “the demo” became the industry’s wide-reaching excuse for the programming cuts made throughout 1970 and 1971, even though there were superseding factors at hand, and the same old standards applied… However, lest we think the demo-targeting argument was entirely erroneous, remember that my study at the time discovered three shows in the Top 30 were cancelled — and they all indeed had some kind of “hayseed” ethos: The Jim Nabors Hour, Hee-Haw, and Mayberry R.F.D., the latter being the top-rated of the trio and the only sitcom. There’s really nothing but demo-targeting to rationalize why these still-popular efforts were dropped — perhaps they didn’t fit in with the rest of the new schedule, as the newbies that were debuting had been, yes, scheduled by Silverman and Wood in an effort to reach younger, city-dwelling eyeballs… never mind that the metrics to determine cancellation would never actually change: total viewers.
Nevertheless, that means Mayberry R.F.D. was one of the very few series that was truly a victim of its own perceived rurality. Heck, based on the numbers it was getting in 1971, it probably could have gone on for several more years, like Lucy. The reason it got cancelled was the same reason it was still a success, and remains so to this day: the show retained its amiable homespun identity, not by being expressly rural, but via its charming small town and the likable people who inhabited it, making Mayberry still a place that many viewers were happy to visit for a half hour every week. Framing this strategic appeal as both series’ sustained strength makes it possible to derive at least a modicum of enjoyment now from what is otherwise a collection of episodes far inferior to what Andy Griffith, Sheldon Leonard, Arthur Stander, and Aaron Ruben first established… And it also makes it possible for me to choose a handful of episodes — five per season — that should provide you with a favorable, albeit accurate, representation of what Mayberry R.F.D., and each year, had to offer. Here’s a bullet point list, for your reference.
SEASON ONE (1968-1969)
- Episode 1: “Andy And Helen Get Married” (09/23/68) — last of Barney, Opie
- Episode 2: “The Harvest Ball” (09/30/68) — intro of Millie, building new series
- Episode 6: “The Panel Show” (10/28/68) — city vs. country divide, classic
- Episode 14: “New Couple In Town” (01/06/69) — character-rooted Goober story
- Episode 17: “Driver Education” (01/27/69) — another good showcase for Goober
SEASON TWO (1969-1970)
- Episode 27: “Andy’s Baby” (09/22/69) — say goodbye to Andy
- Episode 30: “Goober And The Telephone Girl” (10/13/69) — one of the funniest
- Episode 34: “The Caper” (11/10/69) — feels like old (Andy Griffith) times
- Episode 47: “The Sculptor” (03/09/70) — good small-town premise
- Episode 49: ‘”The Mayberry Float” (03/23/70) — small-town show with character
SEASON THREE (1970-1971)
- Episode 61: “Goober, The Housekeeper” (11/09/70) — sweet Goober story
- Episode 63: “Community Spirit” (11/23/70) — Goober, Howard, & Emmett as trio
- Episode 67: “Howard, The Dream Spinner” (12/28/70) — funniest Howard entry
- Episode 70: “The Moon Rocks” (01/25/71) — non-embarrassing modernity
- Episode 74: “Howard, The Swinger” (03/01/71) — silly but uses Howard’s persona
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for Car 54, Where Are You?