- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

Return to gentleness

Cox News Service

With all due respect to William Faulkner, the most famous fictional locale in the history of the South has to be Mayberry, N.C.

Since “The Andy Griffith Show” premiered on Oct. 3, 1960, viewers have never stopped visiting the sleepy little burg where the sheriff doesn’t carry a gun, folks spend their evenings rocking on the front porch, and there aren’t any chain stores out on the bypass killing Main Street.

It’s nothing like the way most people live these days —it’s not even like most people lived in those days — and that may be the appeal. In Mr. Griffith’s words, “It’s a place that people want to return to. A quiet, gentle place.”

Tonight, Andy, Opie, Barney and Gomer themselves will return in “The Andy Griffith Reunion: Back to Mayberry,” airing at 8 on CBS.

Not that the actors ever actually set foot in North Carolina.

The special begins with Mr. Griffith and Ron Howard re-creating their opening-credits walk to the fishin’ hole (cue snappy whistling), which actually was a reservoir in Los Angeles. Later, they gather with Don Knotts and Jim Nabors in a replica of the sheriff’s office to reminisce between vintage clips — an experience that gives Mr. Howard such a whiff of deja vu that he mutters, “This is like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.”

The voices are slower, the midsections softer, but those black-and-white character sketches are as sharp as ever. All in all, the hourlong program is a nice, warm bath of nostalgia.

Mr. Griffith, 77, hasn’t done much television since Ben Matlock put away his law books a few seasons back. During an interview from his home on Roanoke Island, N.C., the folksy one plugged his new Marty Stuart-produced album (“The Christmas Guest”) and raved about the special-edition Andy Griffith guitar made by Martin. He said he was about to try out one: “I might play ‘Midnight Special’ in E or ‘Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia’ in C.”

As for the series he’ll always be known for (the show remained in the top 10 ratings throughout its eight-year run), Mr. Griffith explained its enduring charm with a homily. “Our central theme was love,” he said, and he didn’t mean the kind you see on “Sex and the City.” He meant the kind that has made “Andy Griffith” a popular subject for Sunday school lessons — something that amuses and pleases him.

Mr. Griffith based much of Mayberry on his Depression-era upbringing in Mount Airy, a small town situated where the Blue Ridge begins to rise near the Virginia line. It’s a part of North Carolina that has a low black population, but that doesn’t fully explain why Mayberry seemed to be the whitest village south of Vermont.

It was the times, Mr. Griffith said. Black actors during the civil rights era weren’t eager to play subservient roles, but the show’s creative team didn’t think viewers would buy it if, say, Aunt Bee (portrayed by the late New York stage actress Frances Bavier) went to see a black doctor. So they sidestepped race entirely.

“I wish we had tried harder,” Mr. Griffith said. “I’m sorry about that.”

What does Mr. Griffith think Mayberry would be like today?

“It would have a Wal-Mart, without question, and a Food Lion,” he said, not sounding too happy about the prospect. “You know, they tried to put [a Food Lion] on the island where I live, and we all got together and stopped it.”

Mr. Griffith doesn’t watch much TV comedy anymore. He said he enjoys “Seinfeld” reruns and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a program he considers “beautifully written.”

A few weeks back, TV Land, the cable channel that airs “Griffith” weeknights at 10, erected a bronze statue of Andy and Opie in Raleigh, N.C. The inscription got to the heart of it:

“A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh, a father and a son.”

Mr. Griffith liked the sentiment. He liked the statue, too.

“That beats anything,” he said after unveiling it. “I kind of wish I looked like that now.”

In Mayberry, he always will.

HBO’s reality check

In a strategy shift, HBO’s documentary programming division is looking to develop regular series for the premium cable channel for the first time, Reuters News Agency reports.

The push to develop ongoing series was sparked in part by the intriguing characters featured in an upcoming installment of HBO’s “America Undercover” documentary franchise. Titled “Family Bonds,” the half-hour pilot follows the real-life exploits of Tom Evangelista, who runs a business in which he employs family members as bail bondsmen and bounty hunters in Queens, N.Y.

“We’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” Sheila Nevins, HBO’s executive vice president for original programming, told Reuters. “We’ve always been more like an anthology, but now we’re trying to have continuing characters going through continuing stories.”

“Bonds” is one of several multihour documentary franchises HBO has launched recently, including the porn-industry expose “Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley” and “Cathouse,” a fly-on-the-wall look at a Nevada brothel that premiered in December and will return with new episodes. Unlike those shows, “Bonds” would have an open-ended production.

“Bonds” is expected to air in the second half of next year. If HBO declines to move ahead with it as a series, the pilot likely will air as an expanded hourlong documentary as part of “Undercover.”

Meanwhile, after running in a weekly slot for nearly three years at 10 on Sunday nights, “Undercover” will return to being an occasional event next year, with at least 10 installments planned.

Another new documentary that will be presented as part of “Undercover” will provide a pointed contrast to HBO’s often sex-soaked nonfiction offerings: an examination of celibacy from British filmmaker Antony Thomas, who delved into faith healing for the 2001 HBO documentary “A Question of Miracles.” Current and former Catholic clergymen will discuss abstinence, as will members of other religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. “Celibacy” will air in June.

The new season of “Undercover” kicks off in January with “Shelter Dogs,” which concerns ethical decisions at an animal shelter. Previously announced “Undercover” installments, including a documentary to be produced by Jennifer Lopez about the Hispanic teenage coming-of-age celebration Quinceanera and a look at life in the mailrooms of Hollywood talent agencies based on David Rensin’s recent book “Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up,” likely will air in 2005.

Compiled by Christian Toto from staff and wire reports.

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