Perhaps the assertion that "The Andy Griffith Show" is the greatest sitcom of all time is an arguable one, but certainly [and perhaps inarguably] it ranks among the 25 best episodic television shows ever produced in the USA. Its cult, both in the US and around the world, is unrivaled by that of any other American TV show, with perhaps the exception of that 3-season contemporary '60s offering "Star Trek."
So you see, with a fan-base situation like this one, one humble blogger from AZ feels kind of intimidated to even join the decades-long discussion!
But still... here I go.
Now, I should say at the outset that I am truly a big fan... not the biggest, by any means, but avid enough that I can actually be entertained by a perusal through the endless and almost excruciatingly detailed discussions that permeate the plethora of websites and message boards devoted to TAGS [as we aficionados always abbreviate the object of our sad but harmless obsession.] I own all 8 seasons of the original classic on DVD, and will undoubtedly buy the 3 seasons of "Mayberry RFD" [the much-maligned continuation of the franchise] should they ever become similarly available. I have watched every episode at least once, and most of them twice or even several times.
Unquestionably TAGS is a true American classic, especially in its first 5 seasons-- the ones that still featured Don Knotts in his classic role as Deputy Barney Fife. Barney and Sheriff Andy Taylor had an undeniable working chemistry and timing that really went far above and beyond the typical "straight man and goofy sidekick" dynamic. In comedic terms, it was truly a marriage made in heaven, and both Knotts and star Griffith deserve all their due as brilliant comedic actors.
Over 5 seasons this chemistry was not only used and explored in some really well-written episodes, but a backdrop of amazing supporting characters was steadily developed until TAGS became one of the great ensemble comedies in all of entertainment history... an episodic tour-de-force that still amazes and charms even the youngest, hippest, and most sophisticated viewers to this very day.
But then... at the close of the 5th season... there arose a tragedy equally epic!
At the fabled end of that season, Don Knotts departed to pursue a mediocre movie career.
Barney was now gone, the show switched to color, and Sheriff Andy, left to toil on with his lesser cast as the new sidekicks, suddenly changed into a serious, almost morose lead character.
I would venture to suppose that this transition is the subject of more controversy in "TAGS-dom" than any other one topic. Virtually any TAGS fan can be counted on to have a strong opinion of some kind concerning this grave issue.
Now... although these last 3 seasons have extremely vocal and even hateful detractors [check around the message boards awhile and you'll see what I mean], it is worth noting that these seasons were still quite popular in the USA at the time of their production. In fact, Season 8, the final season, ended as the #1 show in the country for the year it first aired, and Amazon.com stats show that these seasons have sold pretty much as well as the first 5 on DVD. [I know I didn't hesitate to keep buying them!] "Mayberry RFD" was indeed less popular, but still stayed in the top 20 for all 3 of its seasons, and was only eventually canceled as part of CBS' now infamous purge of "rural programming" in an early '70s effort to streamline its image moving into the "me" decade.
So, here's my confession:
Despite their obvious inferiority [and I do acknowledge it] I have actually grown to like these color episodes. Not only that, I will state unequivocally that at least 2 of my 10 favorite episodes were in color, and neither one has Barney Fife as a character. [Knotts made 5 guest appearances in the color seasons.]
First, let me concede the negatives. For one thing, Andy Griffith himself often seems just plain bored in these later episodes, and that, in and of itself, is a pretty sad development.
Second, the writers felt compelled to create several new characters, and a few of them [like Warren the New Deputy and Emmett the Fix-It man] are blatantly ill-conceived and painfully superfluous. [As far as Warren goes, I always wonder why Jerry Van Dyke-- as the "banjo playing deputy"-- wasn't retained from the tail end of season 5... he would have been a MUCH better choice.]
And third, there truly is something painful about the character of Helen Crump in these later color episodes. Now... unlike most fans, I am not all that hard on Helen, actually. Her character is somewhat harsh, as people always note, but I actually feel it is a very realistic depiction of teachers in those days. Also, 'net posters always rag on her looks, but in all honesty she was pretty hot [and no doubt hotter than these guys' own women-- just a hunch.] Plus... like it or not, Griffith himself chose her as the love interest for fictional Andy, feeling that there was a good chemistry there. I think the real problem was that the story lines of Andy's love life just weren't funny without Barney there to be the foil. I personally think the writers should have just stopped writing "conflict" stories about Andy's love life entirely; there was just no way to make them funny anymore.
Having said all this... I still think there are some real positives to the later seasons.
First, people talk about the stories becoming stupid, but to be fair TAGS always had some really hair-brained episodes. While Goober Pyle believing a dog could talk in season 6 was indeed truly, staggeringly stupid, I actually found it less dumb than Barney's escapade with the goat who ate dynamite back in season 3 [my personal choice for "stupidest episode of the entire run."]
Also, many people think Goober was an annoying character and write endlessly about it, but even Barney could really get on my nerves sometimes. There was this alarming streak of selfishness in Barney that could be at times funny, but at other times downright unfunny... and those episodes [dozens of them!] where Andy lies and manipulates events to spare his deputy/cousin's feelings can be not only stupid, but pathetic, emotionally warped, and morally offensive... all at once! [Watch carefully a so-called classic like "Barney And The Choir," where the entire town joins in Andy's bizarre deception, and I think you'll see what I mean.] I think even Andy and Barn were only as good a couple characters as they were written to be... and sometimes they were written to be a pair of genuine jackasses! Say what you will about Goober's exaggerated mental defects, he was at least truly well-meaning at all times, and this made for some really great "lesson" episodes, like "Goober Goes To An Auto Show," one of the best of all the color episodes.
Thirdly, the characters of Opie and Aunt Bee have some great and shining moments in these later seasons. "The Ball Game" and "Opie's Job" are actually better showcases for Ronnie Howard's burgeoning talents than even the vastly over-rated "Opie The Birdman;" and the color Aunt Bee episodes deserve credit for really exploring the varying and different emotional facets of that most under-valued of all the main characters.
Finally, [and I know I'll take some flack for this one] I actually like the character of Howard Sprague. He's one of those "town bachelor" characters so strangely common in a lot of older fiction, and therefore the "gay" jokes about him will probably never stop... but actually, he's a fine, well-conceived character. In fact, all these fans who gripe about him so feverishly and diligently actually only manage to confirm something about the character that they somehow never stop to consider: he is an absolutely unforgettable fictional creation! Think about it. Those writers managed, in this one late case, to create a character that is still indelibly stuck in all our minds... even in the wake of such great departed creations as Barney and Gomer! That, like it or not, is no mean achievement.
Also, the various scripts revolving around Howard's inter-personal troubles show genuine compassion for the geeky outsider in a much less offensive way than did all the weird, "co-dependent," Barney-as-pathetic-boob, episodes of the vaunted earlier seasons.
So anyway... I guess I "done done it" now! I have gone and outed myself as a fan of the last 3 seasons of TAGS.
Oh well... Let the chips fall where they may.