Paramount // 1986 // 1197 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // April 23rd, 2008
"America's Greatest Lawyer. Case Closed." -at least according to the DVD's back cover, and, as we all know, Paramount's packaging blurbs are legally binding.
While it's developed into something of a pop culture punchline, especially on shows like The Simpsons (say it with me now, in the voice of Grandpa Simpson: "Maaaaaatloooock!"), Matlock was really the last vestige of old-school detective shows, a bridge between traditional TV detectives like Columbo, who always worked out the killer from the convenient cast of suspects provided, and latter-day mutations like Law & Order and CSI, slicker products with angst and flash. Straightforward and unpretentious, Matlock was one of the last of TV's traditional detectives, unburdened by the moral ambiguity of the modern cops-and-lawyers drama and keeping a certitude of conviction that always led to the innocent freed and the guilty implicated, thanks to old-fashioned detective work and a keen investigative eye. Aside from the occasional wacky fake psychic or wacky obsessive-compulsive, TV doesn't really have guys like Ben Matlock anymore. It's a winning formula, as the show's nine seasons can attest. There's a reason your grandpa loved it.
Raised in small Georgia town that "doesn't exist anymore," Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith, The Andy Griffith Show) goes on to become a Harvard-educated defense attorney whose keen legal mind and folksy attitude can be yours for a $100,000 retainer. Always believing his clients to be innocent of the murders they're accused of, Matlock employs the staff of his Atlanta law offices to investigate each case, including his own daughter, Charlene (Linda Purl, Port Charles), also an attorney, and private investigator Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday).
Matlock's 24-episode first season, running from 1986 to 1987, also includes the 90-minute pilot movie that first introduced the character.
The Matlock Drinking Game
Take a drink every time:
* Matlock eats a hot dog
* Matlock plays the ukele
* Charlene gets romantically involved with a client or suspect
* Matlock shines his shoes
* the opposing attorney objects due to "relevancy"...
* ...and take another drink when the presiding judge says, "I'll allow it."
* Tyler is beaten up, degraded, or otherwise humiliated in pursuit of a lead
* someone makes fun of Matlock's suits (either all-white or powder blue, without exception)
* Matlock or one of his associates ends a conversation with a hostile witness or suspect by handing them a subpoena
* Matlock asks a witness a seemingly innocuous, unrelated question that somehow leads to that witness being revealed as the real murderer
Granted, Matlock's prime demographic probably isn't one concerned with drinking games, unless Aunt Ethel really wants to get plastered, but the point is that whatever else Matlock is, it's predictable. Every episode hews so closely to formula that in lesser hands this would have worn thin very quickly. In fact, the show coasts almost exclusively on the appeal and charisma of Andy Griffith. Griffith, of course, has an inexhaustible supply of goodwill stemming from his clean-cut, down-home comedy and his eponymous television show that's virtually synonymous with what many view as a golden age for America. It may be "Mayberry," but to many folks of a certain generation it's a simpler, more idealized time. Griffith carries that persona further here, portraying Matlock-simple, quaint, as morally righteous as he is endearingly stubborn-as an extension of his Sheriff Andy Taylor, the last sane man in a world gone to hell, a world where, every week, a murder is committed and the innocent are always accused.
And Matlock's clients are always innocent, so it's a good thing he never loses; it's so rare, in fact, that "the one he lost" turns out to be a plot point for an episode ("The Convict"). Part of the fun is the innocence of pretty much everything in Matlock's world, including howlingly naïve portrayals of Hollywood partying, stripping, major league sports, and big business. Matlock's certitude is so accurate, so unwavering, that judges humor him just to see where he's going with his questioning. The prosecuting attorneys, after half-hearted attempts to actually do their jobs, sit back and silently wait for Matlock to nail the oblivious witness to the wall. If you want to know what your grandparents saw in Matlock, it's this: the triumph of old values over snarkier, younger, more cynical ones. When Matlock lectures a bratty, Madonna-esque singer on right and wrong behavior (in "The Angel"), there's never any doubt in the viewer's mind that Matlock's advice is sound. The murders are just complicated enough, and always entail a wronged lover or a soured business relationship, with no room for the ambiguity, dizzying legal intricacies, or media-savvy bombast found in today's legal drama.
Plus it's fun to see how Matlock figures it out.
Sound quality is fine, if unremarkable. The full frame picture quality, however, is truly atrocious. There's obviously been no restoration done, as the DVD producers clearly just did a straight transfer from video, which means every episode is riddled with dirt, scratches, tracking lines, flashes, and frame jumps; by all appearances, the tapes used for transfer have not been touched since 1987. The complete lack of extras reinforces the idea that Paramount/CBS Video didn't put much of any effort into this set, right down to the clear plastic case (with episode listings on the reverse of the front cover). If we're sticking with the premise that most of the fans of this series will be of the geriatric set, they might have at least provided subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Over its nine seasons, the show went through several complete cast overhauls (excepting Griffith). These always comprised a Passably Attractive Daughter/Lawyer (ol' Ben had so many daughters appear from nowhere he rivaled Cliff Huxtable for random, previously unmentioned family members) and a Black Private Investigator (Holliday was eventually replaced by the less scheming Conrad McMasters), but the formula for the show rarely wavered (speaking of formulas, the drinking game can still apply by slotting in the appropriate replacement character). It's only when an aging Griffith became more of a supporting character on his own show that things began to break down, and the show's life dropped without its charismatic lead. Here, still in its full force, it's certainly not an innovative show, but it's a fun one, a watchable one, and charming in an '80s sort of way (have fun spotting future TV stars in bit roles, including a pre-Next Generation Jonathan Frakes as another attorney and the stars of Jake and the Fatman playing different roles). This is pleasant, digestible television, and if it's hokey by most modern standards, it's not worse off for it.
Depsite the clear lack of effort from Paramount, Mr. Matlock himself is such a charming and off-putting lawyer I can only sit back and watch as he expertly tricks the witness into incriminating himself. It's unorthodox, but I'll allow it.
Review content copyright © 2008 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #29
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1197 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated