As with most shows, the first season of The Andy Griffith Show finds a series in the process of figuring itself out, especially as it concerned the man in the title. The February 15, 1960 The Danny Thomas Show episode "Danny Meets Andy Griffith"—included on CBS Home Video's The Andy Griffith Show: Season 1 Blu-ray set—served as a back-door pilot. In it, Griffith literally holds court from a familiar- looking set, where city slicker Thomas arrogantly runs afoul of Griffith's cheery Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, North Carolina. This Taylor has a young son named Opie (Ronny Howard), and Frances Bavier appears (though not as Aunt Bee), but Griffith is playing a broader, good-ol'-boy version of a character that would eventually become more of an Atticus Finch type (perhaps not so coincidentally, To Kill a Mockingbird was published only a few months before the Thomas-produced The Andy Griffith Show premiered).
Over the course of the first season, Griffith mostly plays to his perceived strengths as a comic bumpkin—a good man and not a fool, exactly, though sometimes he has to be reminded to smarten up and overcome his pride. The show understandably capitalizes on Griffith's singing and guitar-playing talents by setting up frequent musical opportunities (many of them of the porch-settin' variety). But certain dynamics play out that eventually determined the paths the show would and would not follow. Primarily, the show centers around the business of that courthouse-police station-jailhouse seen in the pilot: a hub to explore the smalltown antics of Mayberry.
Here, Andy's assisted by Deputy Barney Fife (high-powered comedy generator Don Knotts), a breakout character that swiftly suggested Griffith might be better off as a straight man surrounded by troublemakers. Barney arrives fully formed as a touchy, sensitively prideful cop who aspires to be macho but is ill-equipped for his own ideal: he's a bust at his newfound hobby of karate and, for good reason, Andy only trusts him with a single bullet, which he must keep not in his service revolver but in his shirt pocket. Capable of jittery live-wire hysterics and hilarious low-wattage sulking, Knotts comes on strong with a sitcom character that had "instant classic" written all over him.
Andy's home life was always quickly established, with the series' first episode, "The New Housekeeper," marking the permanent arrival in Mayberry of Aunt "Bee" (loveably quavering Bavier). Installed in the Taylor household, she merrily busies herself—and fiercely self-defines—as a motherly cooking and cleaning homemaker, as well as a guardian to young Opie when Andy's on official business. Bavier brings great humanity, smarts, and a strong comic sense to what's otherwise an old-fashioned archetype, and of course, Howard's keenly attentive Opie became something of an indelible archetype in his own right: of the mostly carefree American fishin'-hole boy, seen in the opening titles each week strolling by the lake with his "Paw" and always ready with an "unintentionally" funny, cutting-through-the-b.s. "kids say the darndest things" laugh line.
Not destined for permanent status was Elinor Donahue, coming straight off of Father Knows Best to play pharmacist Ellie Walker, a relatively sophisticated foil to Andy's sorta-dumb male of the first season. Season One's cast of recurring characters also includes town drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), Barney's love interest Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Scrooge-y business titan Ben Weaver (Will Wright), blustery Mayor Pike (Dick Elliott), and babbling barber Floyd Lawson. In one of those oddball TV moments, Floyd the Barber is played, dully, by Walter Baldwin in the season's twefth episode "Stranger in Town," then one week later by the very funny Howard McNear, whowould stick out the role for six more seasons.
Season One may not have the series' most memorable episodes, but it does have a pretty consistent entertainment value, even above and beyond nostalgic affection for the series and its characters. From week to week, Barney has brushes with danger and Thelma Lou, Andy gets in hot water with Ellie or sets Opie straight (or vice versa), and townsfolk get carried away, but some of the more interesting episodes tinker with gender roles, like "Those Gossipin' Men," in which Aunt Bee turns the tables on the critical opposite sex, and "Andy and Opie, Housekeepers," in which the messy males' resolve to turn over a new leaf has unintended consequences. It's a network sitcom with predictable conflicts meandering their way to "all's well that ends well" resolutions, but the show—starting out on its now-historic eight-year run—functions not unlike its bucolic setting: it's a nice place to visit.
CBS Home Video has done a fantastic job of bringing The Andy Griffith Show to Blu-ray in its Season 1 set—which happily includes the 1986 reunion movie Return to Mayberry! The shows have never looked better (and they've always looked pretty good to me). Nicely resolved in detail and texture, these black-and-white transfers enjoy spot-on contrast anchored by a strong black level. It's true that the image isn't entirely clean, but I was never distracted by the light dust and dirt in the picture—it's not in the least bit unsightly—which in its way contributes to the pleasing film-stock character of this vintage material. Sound comes in lossless LPCM 2.0 stereo that's basically up to the show's simple aural tasks. The music doesn't enjoy a broad dynamic range, but I feel confident this is about as good as the series is likely ever to sound, and that's pretty darn good, especially in the crucially clear dialogue.
Bonus features are few but excellent. For starters, each episode gives the option to watch it with its Original Sponsor Materials, which are certainly of historic interest and offer more in-character material that's not been aired in the decades of syndication repeats.
Disc One includes the all-important back-door pilot "'Danny Meets Andy Griffith' From The Danny Thomas Show Season 7" (27:20, HD) from February 15, 1960 and "The Howards' On-Set Movies" (8:36, HD), which is fascinating color set footage of Ron Howard, brother Clint, father Rance, and the cast and crew.
Disc Four includes the 1986 TV reunion movie Return to Mayberry (1:35:26, HD), which is a real treat, especially as presented here in high definition. This is certainly one of the best of the many reunion movies the networks pursued in the eighties, and it assembles an impressive number of the original cast, including Griffith, Howard, Don Knotts, Hal Smith, Betty Lynn, and many others who joined the show in later seasons.
Last up is a "Person to Person Interview with Andy Griffith" (13:05, SD), a June 14, 1957 clip in which Griffith and his wife Barbara chat, not so spontaneously, with Person to Person host Edward R. Murrow.
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