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GOLLY, LOOK WHO’S BACK IN ‘TAYOWN’

Mayberry, N.C., fictional setting for “The Andy Griffith Show,” was a state of mind, not a place. It was a blend of corn and Camelot, a town where time stood still, and people, too.

“The backbone of our show was love,” Griffith said on “Donahue” recently. “There’s something about Mayberry and Mayberry folk that never leaves you.”

It’s easy to get soppy about this. But see for yourself when NBC airs “Return to Mayberry” at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 4, 36 and 39, a TV movie reviving the characters and gentle whimsy of a series that ran on CBS from 1960 to 1968. It’s less a comedy than a warmedy. I watched it for two hours with a smile on my face.

Mayberrians aren’t much different in the era of Ronald Reagan than they were under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, almost as if Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) and the rest of the “tayown” had gone on an extended fishing trip and returned nearly intact.

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Oh, Aunt Bee isn’t around (Griffith said Frances Bavier, who played her, was too ill to participate). And barber Floyd Lawson is absent (Howard McNear, the actor who played him, is dead). Almost everyone else is back, though.

Guileless, eternally happy Gomer (Jim Nabors) and Goober (George Lindsey) have opened a garage. Andy’s son, little Opie (Ron Howard, now a successful movie director), is now a bigger Opie, with an expectant wife and a job as editor of the paper. Andy’s bumbling, self-destructing deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts), is acting sheriff and running for the job in the coming election. Says Gomer: “He hasn’t done nothing stupid now fer . . . oh, about a month.”

Meanwhile, Andy has spent the last 20 years as a postal inspector in Cleveland. Not that everyone noticed.

“How come we ain’t laid eyes on you lately?” asks Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle).

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“I been outta town 20 years,” replies Andy.

“I guess that partly explains it,” says Briscoe Darling.

It seems that Andy has returned to Mayberry to run for sheriff himself, but unselfishly changes his mind when he learns of Barney’s plans. “Doggone,” says Gomer. “Double doggone,” adds Goober.

Poor Barney has his hands full trying to figure out why a monster--"a big, ol’ ugly thang” with horns--keeps appearing in the lake. You can depend on Barney bungling the investigation and Andy helping him save face.

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If Nielsen ratings are a measure, Americans love TV revivals, probably because they return us to times we recall being less complex and less threatening. Phil Donahue told Griffith that TV series like “The Andy Griffith Show” reflect the way we were. More likely, they reflect the way we wish we were.

During those eight years that the sun shone on Mayberry, John Kennedy faced the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Lyndon Johnson plunged the United States deeper into Vietnam, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Times were no prettier then than now.

And even if revivals are big box office, they seldom succeed artistically. Jeannie the genie didn’t. Beaver Cleaver didn’t. Perry Mason didn’t. And so on and so on. “Return to Mayberry,” though, is a bull’s-eye.

One reason is that the turf is familiar to director Bob Sweeney and writers Harvey Bullock and Everett Greenbaum, who are Griffith show alumni. Another is that the characters are still true to themselves and the cast true to the characters.

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Betty Lynn is back as Barney’s girl, Thelma Lou; Jack Dodson as Andy’s pal, Howard Sprague; Hal Smith as town drunk Otis Campbell (now on the wagon); Howard Morris as no-good Ernest T. Bass and Aneta Corsaut as Andy’s wife, Helen.

Andy Griffith still fits in Mayberry as the town’s most credible asset, a thoughtful, patient, all-knowing, homespun sage who prefers listening to lecturing.

Barney: Women are a lot like trolley cars. You miss one, there’s another one come along every minute.

Andy: Every minute.

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And Knotts still fits. It’s impossible to write an unfunny line for a man whose body looks like it was squeezed from a tube. Adoring audiences can’t wait to laugh at him. You saw it when he appeared with Griffith on “Donahue” along with Nabors and Lindsey. Knotts would open his mouth to say something serious as Donahue’s audience awaited his words, poised to giggle.

Several in the audience observed that there is “something about that place” called Mayberry, something they couldn’t quite define. True. Small towns are rock chic these days. There are small towns in the songs of Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp and others, but only one small town where there is a sheriff without crime and people mean it when they say golly.

Doggone. Double doggone.


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