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Matlock Merriment

Mid-January 2019


Last week, after another delicious dinner, Dear Husband told me that we need to get some classic/vintage tv shows in the queue to watch. We’ve gone the gamut of Classic Hollywood films. Laura, was, I think, the last one for me for quite a while. I fully concur with an IMDb reviewer: “The painting was better than the character.” It had a lot more depth too!


I told Dear Husband that I’d watched re-runs of Matlock in the late 1990s, on tv, early every afternoon for an hour during the six weeks that I was rehabbing a broken big toe. (A large stack of bowls fell on it while I was pulling the stack from a low cabinet in the midst of making soup. Obviously, there was no soup that night!)


Created by Dean Hargrove, Matlock is an American tv-legal-drama that originally aired from March 1986 until May 1992 on NBC; and from November 1992 until May 1995 on ABC. I, of course, did not watch the original productions. My essay, "Unplugged", provides further explanation of that free state whence I have recently returned: My telly is unplugged from the Internet.

With curiosity, I went in search of reviews of the DVDs on the Jungle platform of online sales. Some of those reviews were a hoot!


The first one contained a confession, of sorts: “Ok. I’m old. So take all that I write with that in mind. I'm Ron Howard's age. . . “


The next reviewer touched upon a phenomenon I’ve consistently encountered during my life: My enjoyment of tv-shows that the Elites mock, disdain and despise, but somehow those shows become hits! Murder She Wrote was one such instance for me.


This reviewer explains that Matlock arrived on the scene in 1987 when he, the reviewer, was a demographic anomaly. He also counts Murder She Wrote as a favorite tv-show. His friend in the “advertising business” in New York City would shake his head and laugh when this person informed him of his viewing pleasures.

This archaic fan of Matlock has recently been enjoying this marvelous show on DVD. The “advertising business” friend in NYC is probably not enjoying much at all today!


I don’t believe this gentleman was a “demographic anomaly” at all. I don’t think I am either! I’m an individual who rarely watches the Tube, but whenever I do, I pick a winner!

Matlock is a winner. In re-runs, it played well. In the DVD format, the audio is uneven, which is unfortunate because the dialogue is tightly written and often comically witty. The video plays very well! There’s comedy; there’s drama; there’s dramedy. Most importantly, there’s fantastic acting by all of the players: young and old, the famous, the famously past-their-prime, and the fresh faces heading toward fame and their own prime-time.


I’ve only watched 8 episodes of this DVD compilation, but I can already easily see that Matlock created a time capsule of its time:

Big hair (for men as well as for women); horrid female fashions; powerless women preyed upon by rich, powerful men; dragon ladies married to some of those rich, powerful men; corruption, corruption, corruption; Mafia-influence everywhere; a plethora of pay phones that have since vanished from Earth; a general absence of security cameras that have overtaken public spaces; a father-daughter relationship that is unusual, to say the least (ergo, it soon gets the axe); and political incorrectness on full display (e.g., the Confederate flag in the Atlanta courthouse; use of the term, Foreign National); and the battle of the sexes fought in sartorial splendour.

Andy Griffith plays Ben Matlock, a criminal defense attorney who charges $100,000 to take the case of the accused. The objective is to find the real killer before the jury finds the accused guilty of murder. The entire plot of this legal drama revolves around SOEDIT (someone-else-did-it). Matlock typically saves the day and earns his exorbitant fee by figuring out who-did-it and then confronting, in a dramatically memorable scene, The Real Killer. If Ben can’t find the perpetrator, he, at the very least, proves reasonable doubt about the guilt of his client. In any way that he can.


Griffith smoothly plays the aw-shucks Southern lawyer in a crumpled suit that really is crumpled! He’s got the part down! A superb supporting cast can only hope to keep up with this veteran actor, a real Southerner born in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.

Griffith gained fame as Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, but he chillingly and convincingly portrayed a stinker in the 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd. That smiling duplicity gets played and worked to the hilt by Griffith as Ben Matlock. He’s got a sweet soft side, coated with crusty varnish that threatens to flake off on some of the flakes that encounter him. Here was a role that Andy Samuel Griffith waited a lifetime for — and he took glorious hold of it for 9 seasons!


In the 1950s tv-show Perry Mason, the preliminary hearing is the entire show. Mason’s job is to prevent the case from going to trial. (The murder weapon, a gun, was found in the car’s glove box so often that I re-named that compartment “the gun box”.) In Matlock, the preliminary hearing sets the stage for the rest of the show.

As far as I can surmise, there are 3 types of cases that Matlock takes:


— Cases he initially doesn’t want because they’re pro bono (usually a mercy case found by his attorney-daughter, Charlene);


— Cases he does want, but someone else does not want him to defend the accused; and


— Cases he wants but comes to regret he took, just before the surprise acquittal proves to this wily old legal fox that his instincts were right all along.


The Pilot Movie aired in March 1986. The archetypes in that show are still archetypes. That fundamental consistency is the hallmark of a classic production. The subsequent episodes are paced in accordance with the cycle of tv-viewing of its time. The Nielsen ratings made sure that a spike in interest and flair coincided with a potential lag in viewership. Thus, we see “The Stripper” and “The Affair” and “The Seduction” in the autumn of 1986. Sex sells!


There is a very unrelenting theme of victimization of women by men, almost to the point where the plot becomes predictable and, at times, questionable in terms of believability. The sheer numbers of single women in the workplaces of America at the time offered a steady stream of this storyline fodder for the networks. Much later episodes present a woman lawyer who becomes an equal partner to Matlock in the law practice; and a female district attorney who, as a colleague, befriends him.


Those women of independence came a long way during nearly a decade of this courtroom drama set in America, a litigious society if ever there was one. I’m not sure if more lawyers was the means by to help the plight of powerless women in America. But, this classic tv-show skillfully wove that thread into the tale of truth, justice, and the American way of merriment offered by Ben Matlock and his trusty band of investigators.