The Andy Griffith Show —“Opie The Birdman”

The Andy Griffith Show —“Opie The Birdman”

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.

“Opie The Birdman” (The Andy Griffith Show, season 4, episode 1; originally aired 9/30/1963)

In which Opie Taylor does the right thing.

Noel Murray: Opie Taylor is still a pre-teen in the Andy Griffith Show episode “Opie The Birdman,” but no matter his age, the show will always remind me of my adolescence, for a couple of reasons. First off, I really “discovered” The Andy Griffith Show in my late teens. When I was younger, I associated the show with all things old, country, and boring, so I largely avoided it when it popped up in syndicated repeats on our local UHF station. But then for some weird reason, while I was in the thick of my high-school punk years, I started developing an interest in entertainment that reminded me of the home I’d be leaving soon to go to college. I listened to The Band over and over, and read Garrison Keillor books, and watched every Andy Griffith Show marathon that Channel 17 in Nashville aired.

As those references to Nashville should indicate, I’m a Southerner, born and raised, which means I recognize a lot of the characters, idioms, and experiences on The Andy Griffith Show. Not that I think that being from the South is a prerequisite for enjoying Andy Griffith, mind you. I do, however, wonder if being from a certain generation matters—a generation that was given more freedom to roam freely, without all the anxiety about “stranger danger” and the like. Because when I watch “Opie The Birdman” now, what’s most striking to me is how Sheriff Andy Taylor shoos Opie off to enjoy his day, completely independent of supervision. And not only that, Opie is set loose with a weapon in his hand. The episode opens with Deputy Barney Fife helping Opie make a slingshot, and after some cursory warnings from Pa, Opie is cut loose to tool around Mayberry, shooting rocks at scattered targets. When he inadvertently pegs a bird in a tree, the plot kicks in.

When I think back on my idle boyhood—when my folks went off to work and left me and my brother to our own devices—a lot of it was spent just watching TV, riding bikes over to my friends’ houses to play Atari, and scraping together enough change to pay the admission and buy snacks at the municipal pool. But we got into trouble some, too. One of us might find a cache of dirty magazines, or sneak a bottle of liquor out of the house, or shoplift packs of baseball cards. Most of this, we did without getting caught. But sometimes, we’d get into a fight that left a bruise, or we’d knock over something in the house and break it. Decades later, I can still recall the sense of dread that came from knowing my parents would be returning soon and would find out what I’d done. There’s mischief, and then there’s irreparable mischief.

That’s what makes the scene of Opie realizing he’s killed a bird so painful to watch. The moment where he tosses the dead creature into the air? Just devastating. And shortly after that scene, the perspective shifts from the boy to his dad, as Andy finds the dead bird, figures out what must have happened, and heads into Opie’s room to mete out some punishment.

The later scene is especially meaningful to me as the father of a boy about to turn 11, and a girl about to turn 8. I often tell new parents that a large part of their job will entail pretending to be mad about some things, while trying not to be mad about others. By which I mean: If my son gets a bad grade on a test, it doesn’t really irritate me, but because I want him to take school seriously, I have to put on my stern face. Conversely, if my daughter keeps walking in every two minutes to ask me questions while I’m trying to work, I actually am irritated, but it would be unfair for me to snap at her without any warning.

I’m not saying Andy isn’t genuinely angry when he walks into Opie’s room and demands that he hand over his slingshot. But Andy’s smart enough to know that there’s a character he has to play here. Whether Opie feels guilty about the bird or not, his Pa can’t just give him a hug, say, “Hey, accidents happen,” and let his son off the hook. Granted, Andy’s method of teaching Opie a lesson—opening the window so the kid can be tortured by the incessant tweeting of the bird’s abandoned hatchlings—is maybe excessively harsh. But you have to make your kids feel lousy sometimes, so they understand their actions have consequences.

Anyway, Opie doesn’t respond badly to his dad’s lesson; the next morning, he’s up early, grinding “bugs and worms and things” to feed to the abandoned baby birds. The dynamic between Andy and Opie then changes a bit, with Andy reverting to kindly and removed, watching Opie as his son nurtures the babies. There’s quite a contrast between Andy’s approach to leadership and his deputy’s. Barney’s a meddler. We see that when he’s helping Opie with the slingshot, as he warns Opie not to stick his tongue out while working (“it’s a bad habit; you could bite it off”), and as he dispenses secondhand advice about how Opie shouldn’t touch the birds because “all wild creatures shy away from anything with man-smell.”

Meanwhile, Barney’s caught up short by Opie’s question about how people in Biblical times made slingshots without ready access to inner tubes, and when the baby birds get big enough to leave their cage, Barney is like a little kid, insisting that the birds aren’t “full-growed” yet. (Note also that when Barney is telling Opie not to stick his tongue out, he can’t keep his own tongue from protruding.) Andy, on the other hand, hangs back, encouraging Opie to learn on his own, only stepping in to guide his son when necessary.

Andy also tries to pass along his attitudes toward parenting to Opie, by letting him know that so long as he provides for the birds’ basic needs—food and shelter—they’re most likely going to be okay. Nature just kind of kicks in, such that plants, animals, and people all just…  grow. Andy doesn’t tell Opie what to do with the birds, but he leads his son to understand that he’s not meant to keep them caged up forever as pets. He has to send them out into the world, so the trees can seem “nice and full.”

I picked this episode because of my memories of watching it as a teen and my memories of being like Opie as a kid. But looking at “Opie The Birdman” again, I zeroed in on Andy, as he’s preparing himself to raise a teen. It’s a nice and true moment when Opie takes it upon himself to take care of the baby birds, because one of the great pleasures of being a parent is the way our kids come up with their own little plans and projects, wholly independent of our programming. (Just this past weekend, in fact, my daughter designed and built her own lemonade stand, and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon slinging fresh juice to the neighbors.) But it makes a dad feel a little melancholy, too, to know that his children are racing inevitably toward the day when they leave home. Our children drove this point home the other day from the back seat, where they were talking about the difference between organic and man-made. “We are not technology,” my daughter laughed. “No,” my son answered gravely. “We are naturally occurring.”

Donna Bowman: “Hope I did all the right things,” Opie tells the first bird he releases. “Please fly away.” I may encounter a thousand depictions of parenthood in my lifetime, but surely none will be as simply poignant and perfectly accurate as this. My childhood freedom didn’t take place in the absence of parents the way yours did, Noel; my mother stayed at home, and the fact that we had the run of the neighborhood didn’t make her supervision any less ubiquitous. What tears at my heart in “Opie The Birdman” is when Opie asks for reassurance from his dad that he’s doing the right things, and instead tends to get it from proud Uncle Barney. Nobody’s an expert, in spite of Barney’s pontificating about scientific and biological imperatives. We anxiously look for signs that things are going well and hope that others see it the same way. I think that’s why we get so proud when our children are praised for their intelligence or sensitivity or good manners; it’s less that we’re taking credit for their successes than that we’re getting outside confirmation of our own biased perceptions.

People associate The Andy Griffith Show with nostalgic depictions of a golden age, an oversimplification that you mentioned in an earlier Very Special Episode column. One reason, though, is Opie’s personality. He’s curious, unintentionally funny, earnest, and full of wonder. We all hope our kids will have some of those traits. I know that you and I, Noel, are as astounded as anyone could be that our kids do. Opie seems like a parody of a kid sometimes, the way Barney is a parody of a lawman. But the specific details ground the characters in a realm we recognize, not reducible to our fantasies or our wishes. The way our kids need us. The way they won’t stop growing. The way we are compelled to teach them whether we want to or not. Adolescence brings all those natural processes into sharp relief, inescapable, shining with opportunity, beset with pitfalls. Hope we’re doing all the right things. Please fly away. But not yet.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: That’s a great remembrance of what The Andy Griffith Show meant to you as an adolescent, Noel. I grew up in a really remote part of Mississippi, and I went through a similar experience with the show, except that when I say it was similar to yours, I mean that in the way that Spock is similar to his goateed doppelgänger in the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek. I used to watch Andy Griffith reruns on TV as a kid, the same way I watched reruns of anything else that was on when I was a kid, and I knew it was the classy one of all the CBS rural sitcoms of the 1960s—though I always got more excited by the prospect of a Green Acres I hadn’t seen before. But when I was a teenager, a period I remember as defined by a constant state of frustration, rage, and despair, I came to hate that show with a passion. It was still always on in my house, because the TV was literally on during every waking moment, and I did not always have control over which channel it was tuned to, of the two we could dependably get during the daytime. (Remote, freaking remote part of Mississippi.) 

I was just fed up and bored out of my skull in those years, and in my agitated state, Andy Griffith seemed like a folksy lie about the virtues of life in a quiet community where nobody knew anything and you got to see the same eight or nine sexless white idiots every day, until God finally gifted you with the mercy of sweet, sweet death. In my acne-scarred fury, I developed a special loathing of Andy Taylor, the only person in town with any brains at all. In fact, if you watched the show for a while, it turned out that he was quite intelligent, which made it so much worse. What was he doing there? I developed a theory about him: Andy, tied down by God knows what combination of family responsibilities and fear of leaving, only to find himself a little frog in a big pond, hung around Mayberry so he could remain the unquestioned God figure or benign dictator in a craphole town where everyone else would die off for evolutionary reasons within a week if he ever left.

Sometimes, I imagined that there were moments when you could see the contempt he held for his fellow Mayberryites in his eyes, as in the reaction shot of him in the first scene here, listening to Barney fill his boy’s head with horseshit, but deciding it would be too much trouble to set either of them straight. I thought about the hatred for the people around him that, underneath his cheery exterior, must be burning a hole in his gut, to the point that it’s a wonder I didn’t try to put down my fantasy version of the character on paper and write The Killer Inside Me by accident. I know; I sound unhinged. (And at this point in life, I hadn’t even heard about, much less seen, A Face In The Crowd.) But that’s what Mayberry and adolescence, taken together, mean to me.

I don’t remember ever seeing this episode before, and though I can appreciate the sweetness at its core and the bittersweet way Andy gets to see his boy taking a premature crack at being a parent himself, my reaction to that first scene, and the shot of Andy looming over Opie, telling him that saying he’s sorry on this one won’t cut it, while the lighting on his eyes and overhanging brow make him look like Frankenstein’s monster, tells me I still haven’t put my personal demons to bed thoroughly enough to look at this entertainment with clear eyes and a sound head. (Two channels. In the real world, people had HBO and laserdiscs, and we had two goddamn channels!) Maybe it would help if I’d ever been a parent. 

But I was startled to realize that “Opie The Birdman” must have inspired one of my favorite Simpsons episodes, “Bart The Mother,” in which Bart kills a bird sitting in a nest, and after being guilt-reamed by Marge, tends to the eggs, which hatch and unleash tree lizards that threaten the local environment. “People think they’re monsters,” he says, “but I raised them, and I love them!” “I know just how you feel,” his mother tells him, and you apparently don’t have to be a parent to feel that one in your gut.

Ryan McGee: All of you have already touched on the emotional cornerstones of this episode, so I won’t repeat what you’ve said. But I also latched onto Barney’s busybody mouth while watching this episode, primarily due to this group’s previous incarnation reviewing the early days of Cheers. There’s a lot of Cliff Clavin in Barney Fife… or, more accurately, the other way around. I loved how Barney’s bluster actually feeds into the core concept of this episode: For all our pretending otherwise, there’s precious little we actually know when it comes to the important aspects of life. Or, in the case of this episode, death. Barney chastises Andy for feeding supposedly false information about David’s slingshot, but over and over, this installment emphasizes the limits to Barney’s supposedly infinite wisdom.

Maybe that’s why Opie’s release of that first bird near the end of the episode thrills so much. It’s an expression of how things occasionally do work out, even when it seems like everything’s teetering on the brink of disaster. The sheer hopelessness Opie feels after accidentally murdering that bird gets lifted in that triumphant moment. This wasn’t the logical culmination of the care he gave the chicks in the wake of their mother’s death. Nothing about that moment is guaranteed, even in a show supposedly as “hokey” as this one. The stakes established in the first act give enough reason to doubt Opie’s acts of atonement will actually work. But when they do, damned if I didn’t shed a tear or two. 

Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve never held Andy Griffith in as much esteem as I’m supposed to. Intellectually, I’ve always understood that it’s one of the three or four best sitcoms of its era (really, what else is there outside of this, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Green Acres?), but on that emotional, gut level, I’ve always been more of a Dick Van Dyke man. Curiously, I think it’s for roughly the same reason you came to love the show so much, Noel: Mayberry has always reminded me of my hometown, and the series’ escapist powers never had the same effect on me that they did on so many of the show’s fans. Obviously, my hometown wasn’t as idyllic as Mayberry, but I could still reasonably say I’d lived it, man. That took away one of the show’s chief appeals, though it still left the great performances and wistful writing. It’s just one of those shows I’ll always respect more than love.

I’ve always loved “Opie The Birdman,” though. It’s just a beautiful episode of television, and when it turns up in top episodes lists, I’ll never begrudge it its place. Everything about this is sweet and gorgeous, in the way only low-key sitcom episodes really can be. Just looking at the script as a piece of writing, I’m amazed that the first act break is simply Opie sitting alone in his room, listening to the baby birds he may have consigned to death. Structurally, it’s daring, because it forces us to read all of the conflict into the scene. Yet who didn’t have that moment as kids, that moment when we realized, suddenly, that you couldn’t put everything back right? Some things, once destroyed, stay destroyed, and there’s nothing you can do to cover up that hurt and disappointment. I don’t have kids of my own, but that second-act opener is heartening to me for a different reason now than it was when I was younger: How amazing must it be to realize you’ve raised your own kids in such a way as to have them do the right thing unprompted? And how amazing to just stand back and watch it all play out? It reminded me, in its own way, of the boys from The Wire, where we started this little series. The stakes they’re living with are much, much higher, but there’s still a beautiful moment where the audience realizes that each of them really is struggling to do the right thing, whatever that means.

Adolescence, of course, is regularly held up as this time when hormones are roiling and emotions are heightened. But I think the years right before adolescence—the years when you’re 8 or 9 or 10—can be just as hard. You’re not yet an adult. You’re not even half an adult. But you’re starting to realize that the world is often a cruel, unfair place. The only thing you can do to live in that world is to try to lessen that cruelty and unfairness. Opie does the right thing, and he ultimately loses something he came to love very much. But the world gains a very small thing that makes it a better place, even if it’s just the beautiful song of three birds.

RM: Now Todd’s observation has me wondering about the Bob Marley connections to this episode. I mean, three little birds were on Andy’s doorstep!

Meredith Blake: Noel, you took the words out of my mouth when you said you’d always associated The Andy Griffith Show with things country, boring, and old. Throughout my childhood, the show played in reruns on the dinky local Channel 69, a station that was, ironically, the least sexy thing in the world. Just hearing the first few notes of that famous theme song, I instantly feel a little depressed, because Andy Griffith is the show that was on TV when there was nothing else on TV. (That and Perry Mason.) That cheerful whistling conjures in me that long-dormant feeling of crushing boredom that, as an adult, I no longer have the luxury of experiencing. It actually makes me feel nostalgic about things that bummed me out as a kid, if that makes sense. 

So anyway, given my bias, I was doubly bowled over by everything about this episode. Not just the bravura performance by little Ronny Howard—whatever happened to him?—and the wonderfully bittersweet ending, but also by the sly wit present in nearly every scene. My favorite line has to be when Andy, having listened patiently to Barney’s extremely Cliff Clavin-esque lecture about the dangers of touching tiger bait with bare hands, replies, “Next time I go tiger-hunting, I’ll be sure to bring tweezers.” It’s a line that would make Mark Twain proud.

It’s a beautiful piece of television, and I can only find one tiny flaw in the whole thing: As a kid, I tried and failed many a time to nurse a wounded animal back to health. (For me it was usually bunny rabbits.) I grew up in a biggish town, not the country, but even still, the destined-to-fail attempt at nurturing a suffering little creature seems to me like a childhood rite of passage. I kept waiting with dread for Opie to open up the cage one morning and find that Wynken, Blynken, and Nod had gone the way of all flesh. Opie’s success where so many of us would-be wildlife rescuers have failed just makes this episode even more fantastic.

Damn you, Andy Griffith, for making it damn near impossible for me to be cynical! Excuse me while I go binge on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Erik Adams: It’s funny you bring up that scene in Opie’s bedroom, Phil; feeling no ill will toward The Andy Griffith Show—though, like Meredith, the first few bars of the show’s theme song were long my cue to turn off Nick At Nite and go to bed—I took the image of Andy towering over his son as an accurate representation of how everything in the adult world seemed so outsized and incomprehensible during my own adolescence. That’s why it’s perfectly understandable that Opie would go along with all of Barney’s malarkey: His anecdotes and advice are ludicrous to adult ears, but they distill the mysteries of life into terms the boy understands.

And while he’s keen to follow those pieces of sage Fife wisdom, the most important aspect of the episode is one that’s been hit upon several times in this review: Opie takes responsibility for his actions; Opie raises the birds; Opie does the right thing by returning them to the wild. That requires some motivation from his pa, but ultimately, it’s the kid’s name in the title of the episode, and the kid who learns the lesson that Barney won’t prattle at him. He’s still a long way from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Andy, but now Opie knows what it’s like to gaze down at someone (or someones, as the case may be) with a mix of compassion, disappointment, fear, and unconditional love.  

Stray observations:

NM: I didn’t talk much about the writing, performances, and direction of “Opie The Birdman,” but c’mon: There’s a reason why this half-hour often makes lists of the best TV episodes of all time, and it’s not just the two big emotional buttons of Opie killing the mama bird and him later setting its grown babies free. It’s also all the little details: Andy angrily muttering, “Finished with the wastebasket?” after Barney ignores his warnings and makes a mess while trying to shoot the trashcan with Opie’s slingshot; Aunt Bee confessing that she didn’t make her promised “green beans Chinese-style” for supper because the recipe was continued on page seven of the newspaper, and she’d already used that page to line the garbage pail; and so on. When I wrote about The Andy Griffith Show for A Very Special Episode, I said, “The Andy Griffith Show was the best-written, best-acted, best-shot sitcom of the ’60s—and I’ll stand on The Dick Van Dyke Show’s ottoman in my cowboy boots and say that.” Don’t get me wrong: I love Dick Van Dyke. But I stand by that remark.

Next week: We take a look at teens from an adult perspective with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Mary’s Delinquint.” (This episode in on YouTube in two parts. The first part is here.)

After that: Rudy Huxtable grows up in The Cosby Show’s “The Infantry Has Landed (And They’ve Fallen Off The Roof).” (This episode is on Hulu for HuluPlus subscribers here. It is also on YouTube. The first part is here.)