99. "Opie's Ill-Gotten Gain," The Andy Griffith Show (1963)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
There aren't a lot of episodes from the 1960s on this list, and I think a lot of sitcoms popular in that decade (The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Family Affair) will fade from memory as they no longer serve as nostalgia fetishes for Baby Boomers. One series that's likely to hang on is The Andy Griffith Show, partly because of its memorable characters but also because of its high production values. Instead of running the same snatches of incidental music over and over, the producers commissioned original music as needed, and in a wide range of styles. (You can hear some examples on this CD, though it stresses country music more than the show actually did.) And TAGS had some effective cinematography; surely, one reason the color episodes are not as well-liked is their flat look compared with the more stylized black-and-white episodes.
The comic parts of the episode come from Don Knotts as Barney Fife, who isn't messing up a police investigation this time but is instead bitching about how easy kids have it today (no "nip it in the bud" moment, though). Anticipating cable-news blowhards by a few decades, he claims that society would be improved by making more kids stay after school (“That’s what the country needs all right," replies Andy with gentle sarcasm. "More eraser clappers.”), and he insists that he could have been a straight-A student himself but didn't want to show up his classmates.
Knotts's big scene in the episode (it starts at 3:30 in this video) comes when Barney says that he can recite the preamble to the Constitution from memory and Andy calls his bluff. My favorite moment is when Andy prompts Barney with the first syllable of union and Barney triumphantly shouts the phrase "to form a more perfect you!" That could be a slogan in a pharmaceutical ad today, but it must have sounded really bizarre in 1963.
But contemporary standards, this is a long scene, and it doesn't advance the plot. It's just a chance for a comic actor to demonstrate his chops after developing a character over several years.
So we've got hugs and lessons and leisurely pacing in this episode. The Seinfeld sitcom style will have its revenge later in the list but for now click the video below to spend some time in Mayberry: