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TELEVISION REVIEW

Remembering the warm glow of Mayberry

When E! sticks its nose behind the scenes of old TV shows, it sniffs out all the cat fights, contract disputes, and prima donna dramas. Without dirt, E! would stand for empty. But when the networks revisit their classics, usually during sweeps months such as November, the mode is always wistful and stubbornly pleasant. The reunited cast muses lovingly about the good old days, and the lines "we were like one big happy family," and "they were the best years of my life" come to the surface as inevitably as the cast's wrinkles.

Tonight's "The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry" on CBS is a textbook network retrospective, an unerringly positive tribute to one of TV's best-ever series. If there were any ego stunts on the set of the show, which aired from 1960 to '68, they've been put aside for this warm, hourlong bath. The compliments flow among those attending the reunion, at 8 on WBZ-TV (Channel 4), including Griffith, Ron Howard, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors, who enters with Gomer Pyle's gleeful "go-o-olly." Howard, whom Griffith affectionately insists on calling by his early acting name of "Ronny," even gives a rosy shout out to those wondering if he resents having been a child star, that category from which E! has squeezed so much true Hollywood pathology. "A lot of kid actors can't say that they look back with pride and joy, and I'm very grateful that I can say that I do," Howard says.

And "The Andy Griffith Show" is well worth celebrating, as tonight's many clips prove. The series was about healing a family fractured by death, as Aunt Bee (played by the late Frances Bavier) brought her nurturing soul to the widower Andy Taylor and his son, Opie. It was about loving people -- some of whom we now think of as "fringe" -- for their quirkiness, notably Mayberry eccentrics such as Barney Fife, Goober, and Otis the drunk. And it was about a man devoted to his hometown and his family. While the show was funny, thanks largely to the slapstick brilliance of Knotts, it was mostly a heartfelt, dramatic half-hour, exactly what the makers of "Seinfeld" were rejecting when they delivered their "no hugging, no learning" credo in the 1990s.

Indeed, "The Andy Griffith Show" is the antithesis of today's TV comedies. As Howard points out tonight, it "wasn't desperately trying to be funny every second," something even our best comedy writers are guilty of in their efforts to pander to short attention spans. There was no machine-gun deployment of jokes on "The Andy Griffith Show"; just the innately comic nature of its characters. While its Sunday school lessons can seem trite now, the show thrived on a humanity that is beyond many contemporary sitcoms.

Tonight's special begins with a modest Howard and an avuncular Griffith returning to the fishing hole where the show's opening -- with its whistle theme -- was filmed. There, on a park bench, they recall their former closeness, and at one point Griffith emotionally says to the now-successful director, "I'm very proud of you." The two then move to a re-creation of the show's courtroom-jail set -- "This is like a `Twilight Zone' episode," Howard says as he enters the familiar room -- where they are joined by a somewhat dazed and laconic Knotts. Finally, the three are joined by the hulking, jolly Nabors. Their small talk is a little forced and their memories are a little vague, but the beauty in the clips of their show is as natural and vivid as ever.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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