Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
My idea of hell is living in a small town like Mayberry, North Carolina. So it's easy for me to identify with Malcolm Tucker, the "Man in a Hurry," who's stuck on Andy's front porch while he waits for his car to be fixed.
Barney: (while stretching his arms, to Andy) You know what I think I'm gonna do?
Barney: I'm gonna go home, have me a little nap, then go over to Thelma Lou's and watch a little TV.
Barney: Yeah, I believe that's what I'll do: go home... have a nap... then over to Thelma Lou's for TV.
Barney: Yep. That's the plan: right home... a little nap...
Mr. Tucker: (explodes) For the love of Mike, do it, do it. Just do it! Go take a nap, go to Thelma Lou's for TV. Just do it!
Barney: (indignant) What's the hurry? (gets up) I'll see ya, Anj.
"Man in a Hurry" is the quintessential Andy Griffith Show episode (another one, "Opie's Ill-Gotten Gain," is at No. 99 on this list), but it's written almost entirely from Mr. Tucker's point of view. This is unusual for a sitcom, a genre that usually focuses on how regular characters are affected by an outsider rather than the other way around.
In the opening scene, Tucker's car dies on a lonely road and he gets out to see a sign: MAYBERRY 2 MILES. Next we see him trudge into town, which is deserted on a Sunday morning. This is a beautiful scene, reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. In other circumstances, the movie set for Main Street, Mayberry, can look sterile and underpopulated, but here it's exactly right, providing the ironic image of a "city man" being dwarfed by the low-rise buildings of a small town.
The scene also sets the tone for the Twilight Zone feel of the episode. I've compared other sitcom episodes to that classic sci-fi anthology, which set a high standard for half-hour storytelling, but "Man in a Hurry" comes the closest to matching the Rod Serling style. Consider the TZ episodes "A Stop at Willoughby," in which a man seems to dream a Mayberry-like town into existence, and "Nick of Time," in which a fortune-telling machine seems to trap people in a dull little town. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Mr. Tucker, introduced as a businessman who wants to get the hell out of Mayberry as soon as possible, is still there at the end of the episode. The last shot of the episode shows him asleep in a chair on Andy's front porch. Does he ever leave?
Of course, this is Mayberry, USA, so who wants to leave? After the eerie opening of "Man in a Hurry," we get re-acquainted with the Andy Griffith Show's regular characters. It turns out that the streets are deserted because everyone is at church, and we see what looks like the entire town filing out after the Sunday service. The reverend lightly scolds Barney (Don Knotts) for nodding off in church (something of a running gag on TAGS, as seen on another episode about a visitor to Mayberry, "The Sermon for Today"), but Andy has an explanation.
Andy: It's my fault if Barney was snoozing a little. See, I had him out until four o'clock this morning on a chicken stakeout.
Barney: We got a tip that Buzz Jenkins has been lifting a few fryers from Al's Poultry Headquarters.
Reverend: Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
Andy: You know Buzz?
Reverend: (pained) That's where I'm having supper this evening.
The after-church socializing is interrupted by Mr. Tucker, who politely but briskly asks Andy for help in finding a mechanic. Tucker is played by Robert Emhardt, who might have been vaguely familiar to Andy Griffith Show viewers from guest shots on various westerns and anthology series in which he was usually cast as a villain. Here he gets just the right mix of politeness and exasperation, coming off as a less pompous version of Eddie Albert dealing with the yokels on Green Acres.
Tucker is first frustrated that Wally, owner of the only auto repair garage in town, refuses to work on a Sunday, leaving matters in the hands of the eager but less competent Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). Tucker steals a truck from the garage but doesn't make it out of Mayberry before being stopped by Rover Andy. Then he can't call anywhere else for help. As Andy explains, everyone in town leaves the long-distance phone line free on Sunday afternoons so that the Mendlebright Sisters — both in their 80s, one in Mayberrry and one in Mount Pilot — can chat for a few hours.
Mr. Tucker: (listening in on the party line) This is ridiculous! Wasting valuable time on drivel — talking about people's feet falling asleep.
Andy: It's probably Maude.
Barney: Cora, too. I wonder what causes that?
Andy: I don't know.
Barney: I have that every now and then. Maybe I oughta go see their doctor.
Andy invites Tucker to his house, but the visitor refuses to join the Taylors for dinner, instead picking up the phone every few minutes and fuming when he hears the Mendlebright sisters still going on about their feet falling asleep. "I can't believe a public utility being tied up like this," he says to Andy. "You people are living in another world!"
I don't know how plausible this is. Several websites say the population of Mayberry is only 1,200, but based on the size of the downtown, I'd guess it to be several times bigger than that. Would the whole town (and it's actually an incorporated city, as made clear in several episodes) agree to stay off the phone every Sunday afternoon?
But that's in the nature of the sitcom. It's not very realistic for Minneapolis to take Ted Baxter seriously as an anchorman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or for everyone in Seinfeld's New York to suddenly start eating candy bars with forks and knives, or for the citizens of Parks and Recreation's Pawnee to treat a miniature horse like a rock star (and to drink from water fountains in a disgusting manner). But sitcoms are all about people doing implausible things so they can all feel like they're part of a community, whether it's Mayberry or the WJM-TV newsroom.
After finally giving up on getting the Mendelbright Sisters off the phone, Tucker goes out to the front porch for a smoke and gets lulled by Andy playing a spiritual on the guitar ("The Church in the Wildwood"), eventually singing the lyrics along with Andy and Barney. Then Gomer stops by to report some minor progress on the car ("cousin Goober," not yet an onscreen character, has agreed to look at it) and that gets the businessman "all keyed up again," as Andy puts it. But this is Tucker's last bit of resistance. When his car is finally fixed, he prepares to leave, but Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) comes running over with some chicken and cake for the road, and Opie (Ron Howard) is genuinely saddened that this gruff person he's just met won't be spending the night with the Taylors.
Opie: Hey Mr. Tucker, you aren't gonna leave, are you?
Mr. Tucker: I have to, son.
Opie: Aw, rats! If you were staying, I was going to get to sleep on the ironing board between two chairs.
Mr. Tucker: Sounds terrible!
Opie: No, it ain't! That's adventure sleeping!
At this, Tucker reconsiders, making up some complaint about the car still not sounding right. Catching on immediately, Andy gives him some support for his reversal, saying, "You know, I wouldn't trust her for the highway" and insisting that Wally look at the car the next day. Before you know it, Tucker is back on the front porch with Andy and Barney, this time happily planted in a rocking chair.
Despite his initial bluster and resistance to the Taylors' hospitality, traits that The Andy Griffith Show plays for laughs, Tucker finds that he's become part of a little community. Putting aside the Twilight Zone idea that he never leaves, it's easy to imagine him coming back to Mayberry on a regular basis. Maybe once a week for a few years, then every day in reruns?
• "Man in a Hurry" was written by James Fritzell and Edward Greenbaum, who had previously co-scripted episodes of Wally Cox's Mr. Peepers in the 1950s and would go on to bring their gentle touch (for better or worse) to M*A*S*H in the 1970s. It was directed by Bob Sweeney, a former comic actor who helmed 79 other Andy Griffith Show episodes and whose last credit was the drama The Bradys (yes, those Bradys) in 1990.