There isn't much wrong with the four-disc, 32-episode The Andy Griffith Show: The Complete First Season DVD set, but it's still worth contemplating what might have been, if only someone had had the vision to bypass the now-requisite "complete season" model. The Andy Griffith Show's top 50 episodes rank with the best television ever produced, and a theoretical Best Of The Andy Griffith Show box set would have been quintessential TV-on-DVD. A compact cross-section of the series, weighted toward the second through fifth seasons, could make the case for how it differed from other early-'60s sitcoms, with their zany concepts and suburban homogeneity. Andy Griffith worked instead with flavorful Southern dialogue, subtle humanist humor, unforced moral lessons, and an under-recognized sense of style.
To be fair, a lot of what made the show great is evident on The Complete First Season, especially in the show's only Christmas episode, which twists the Scrooge dynamic by having a wealthy old coot actively seek redemption. That episode and most of the other initial 31 go down smoothly, like a series of short visits to a beloved relative. Still, Griffith himself comes off more hickish and less sage in his first season of playing the benevolent sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, and Don Knotts' performance as a prideful, bumbling deputy hadn't yet developed into the ingenious comic creation it would become. Missed most are Griffith and Knotts' conversational interludes, often written by the actors to fill time when an episode ran short. By the fifth season (after which Knotts left the show), the two stars had developed an easy, slow-simmering rhythm, based on Griffith patiently pushing Knotts through multiple states of frustration. The rest of the cast picked up the beat, especially Howard McNear as the town's jumpy-but-melodious barber and the magnificent Francis Bavier as Griffith's anxious aunt.
The tone isn't complete yet in The Andy Griffith Show's first season, but the look certainly is, and these DVDs sport crisp digital transfers that let the viewers count every freckle on Bavier's face. As for the content, the first season shines when it focuses on Griffith's gun-free, people-focused peacekeeping methods, and on how he handles being the widowed father of an 8-year-old boy, played by Ron Howard. The first season ends with one of the series' high points, "Bringing Up Opie," in which Howard is barred from coming by the jailhouse and spends an afternoon forlornly kicking cans and eating apples. An extended dialogue-free stretch highlights the show's subtly moving camera, artful close-ups, richly detailed décor, and extensive use of exterior locations, while the story builds to yet another moment when Griffith has to explain to Howard how the right sometimes conflicts with the good.