There's a reason Abe Simpson loves "Matlock" so much. The show, which ran for nine seasons beginning in 1986, is television comfort food. These adventures of the penny-pinching high-priced lawyer from Atlanta with an affinity for hot dogs, banjos, and seersucker suits follow a specific formula to the letter, presenting modest mystery and the occasional slice of non-threatening action. Its star, Andy Griffith, is America's grandpa, and spending an hour a week (or more, thanks to endless reruns) with the guy is just so darn relaxing.
The brainchild of TV mystery veteran Dean Hargrove (executive producer on "Columbo," "Diagnosis Murder," and the "Perry Mason" revival of the 1980s) and his producing partner Fred Silverman, "Matlock" began in the form of a TV movie, "Diary of a Perfect Murder," which premiered on NBC in March of 1986. As movie-of-the-week fare, "Diary" was only so-so, passable for a breezy evening's entertainment. But Hargrove had a special weapon: Andy Griffith, still a TV superstar thanks to his syndicated sitcom. (A successful reunion movie, "Return to Mayberry," would air the next month.) Hargrove saw in Griffith the chance to mix the star's folksy appeal with distinctively modern mysteries.
It was a perfect fit. Griffith made Ben Matlock all his own, so much so that the actor is remembered just as much for this series as for his tenure on "The Andy Griffith Show," and the show is arguably the first to spring to mind when discussing TV mysteries that appeal to a certain demographic. (Hey, Abe Simpson and his pal Jasper proved their fanhood by getting an expressway named after the guy.)
Watching "Diary" after being exposed to the later, more fully developed years of "Matlock," one becomes amused by some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences. Granted, most of the elements are in place right away: Ben's feisty behavior; his loving relationship with daughter/law partner Charlene (Lori Lethin); the comic relief shenanigans of money-hungry private detective Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday); the plot contrivances that lead Ben to cracking the case and revealing the Real Killer in court.
But this story is told at a slightly darker pitch (check out the moodier early arrangement of Dick DeBenedictis' classic theme song!), and this version of Ben Matlock is more of a slick courtroom showboat. One of his earliest courtroom scenes finds Matlock engaging in verbal razzle-dazzle that means nothing but sounds impressive, and much is later made about Ben's high price and big time connections. (There's even a crack about how one of his clients may or may not be Jimmy Carter.) Ben and Charlene share an upscale office in a swank corner of downtown, where a fussy secretary keeps him in line.
When "Matlock" began as a regular series in September 1986, the producers kept most of these elements, only to phase them out slowly throughout the first season. Ben would eventually do most of his work out of his spacious suburban home, and less would be made about his high legal fees. (Early episodes feature Ben reluctantly taking on pro bono cases; by the series' end, payment arrangements were rarely discussed at all.) Ben would evolve into an ever-increasing "modest southerner" type (several later episodes would involve his boyhood on the farm), a sleek legal mind hiding behind a stubborn, old-fashioned grump.
The first season would also see one major change: Linda Purl was cast to replace Lethin as Charlene. Purl made a good foil for Griffith, as the two play off each other very well, their characters' relationship offering a lighter edge to the stories. Charlene filled a much-needed role for the series: a younger associate can engage in romance and adventure more easily than the older Ben. (The P.I., another series staple, would round out the trio, able to tackle all the big action scenes that would look foolish with Ben in them.)
Purl would eventually leave the series toward the end of the first season; oddly, she would remain in the opening credits for the final three episodes anyway. One episode discusses her possibly taking a case in Miami, and later scripts make a few passing mentions of Charlene now practicing law in Philadelphia, but no other explanation was given for her sudden absence. The last few episodes find the series' writers struggling to find a second banana for their leading lawyer - attempts include an unkempt reporter and a young, scooter-riding delinquent. At the start of season two, Nancy Stafford (who appears in an unrelated role in an early season one episode) was brought on as new legal partner Michelle Thomas. It would be the first of many cast changes to take place over the next decade.
What the first season did more than anything is establish the "Matlock" formula, and it did so right from the start. Both the movie and the season premiere open with a murder prologue, introducing us to the victim and the soon-to-be defendant. The season premiere, "The Judge," offered a "Columbo"-style set-up where the viewer discovers the killer's identity right away and then follows the hero as he attempts to unlock the mystery. (I've read that these are sometimes called "howcatchems." What a marvelous word!) Future episodes would vary between the killer known up front and the killer kept secret.
Little else would differ. Ben would be hired onto the case, and between his keen mind and his associates' help, the case would slowly unravel, until Ben would find himself confronting the real killer in court, just in time for the final scene. When someone teases Ben early in "Diary," asking if his clients are ever guilty, fans of the show can chuckle: nope, they never, ever are. (Well, not entirely true: four episodes throughout the series' run would give Ben a guilty client, as a means of shaking things up. But 98 percent of the time? Not guilty!)
Considering how quickly "Matlock" fell into its comfortable formula, it shouldn't be a surprise that most of the first season is just as strong as later years, when the show found its footing and became a whodunit dynamo. The producers kept guest stars to a minimum (Dick Van Dyke and William Conrad are among the few marquee visitors this year), placing maximum importance on the scripts themselves. And what stunning thrillers these are. These are a handful of highly exciting puzzlers that may not be too taxing on the brain, but they're riveting nonetheless; after all, the fun isn't in figuring out whodunit, but in watching how Ben figures it out, but even then, the mysteries are delicately crafted and enjoyably unfolded. The colorful cast always adds a pinch of fun in between all the sleuthing, which ultimately makes for most of the show's charms. Yes, it's a hoot to watch Ben confront a villain on the stand, but to watch him sing along to ragtime classics is an even greater joy.
Such musical moments come in the season's best episode, and the one that strays furthest from the formula. "The People vs. Matlock" takes a risk by switching things up so early in the show's run - such a thing is usually a sign of later-year desperation, but Hargrove, Silverman, and their staff are confident enough in their characters to introduce a switcheroo so early in the series. Here, Ben is accused of jury tampering, and with the help of D.A. Julie March (Julie Sommars, who would join the regular cast the following year), he proves his innocence while simultaneously cracking a murder case. The episode works so well thanks to both its clever mystery construction and its rapport between Griffith and Sommars, whose playful banter would make for some of the series' finest moments in later seasons.
In fact, even at its weakest (usually a tired subplot in which Charlene falls for someone she shouldn't), "Matlock" remains utterly charming. Its use of formula makes the show familiar but never tedious, and Griffith's charisma always carries us through. It's comforting entertainment right from the start. Abe Simpson was right!
CBS/Paramount collects the two-hour pilot movie and all 23 main first season episodes in the seven-disc set "Matlock: The Complete First Season." The discs are housed in a thick clear keepcase with three double-sided hinged trays. It's not as pretty as fancier digipaks or slim cases, but it gets the job done.
Although there are no chapter menus included, chapter breaks are included with each episode; they coincide with commercial break fade-outs.
On the back of the case, Paramount includes their now-standard disclaimer: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network version." This is the studio's catch-all statement, and here's how it applies in this set:
As far as I can tell, most of the episodes are their original broadcast versions, a good minute-and-a-half to two minutes longer than the edited episodes currently airing in syndication. (Running times average around 48 minutes and change.) But, in an odd twist, they're still edited slightly. All episodes are missing the quick bumpers featuring the show logo and a few bars of the theme song; these bumpers, still in use for syndication, would play at the start of each commercial break. Perhaps to avoid breaking the story rhythms, they are missing here. No big loss.
Also missing from all but the first few episodes are the teaser montages that would open each episode; a dopey trend from 80s television, these mini-spoilers (also still in use for the syndicated episodes) were designed to let you know most of what was about to happen in the next hour. I always hated those and do not miss them here, although purists may bemoan their absence.
One other alteration, also not very important: the 80s-style Viacom logo at the end of each episode has been replaced by a modern CBS/Paramount logo. No big deal to me, but again, purists might grumble.
Everything else appears to be intact. The episodes contained in this collection, presented in original broadcast order, are:
Disc One: "Diary of a Perfect Murder", "The Judge", and "The Stripper".
Disc Two: "The Affair", "The Seduction", "The Don, Part 1", and "The Don, Part 2".
Disc Three: "The Sisters", "The Cop", "The Angel", and "The Professor".
Disc Four: "Santa Claus", "The Chef", "The Author", and "The Rat Pack".
Disc Five: "The Nurse", "The Convict", "The Court-Martial, Part 1", and "The Court-Martial, Part 2".
Disc Six: "The Therapist", "The People vs. Matlock", and "The Photographer".
Disc Seven: "The Reporter" and "The Doctors".
Video & Audio
Not much effort went into cleaning up these episodes, which look only slightly better here than as broadcast. The image is very soft with a slight amount of grain, and colors are a bit flat. Granted, there's not much there originally - 80s TV shows shot on film aren't remembered for their dazzling visual crispness - but its presentation here is barely a step up from what you'd catch in syndication. On the plus side, considering how much programming is crammed onto each disc, there's a surprisingly very little amount of compression and other digital issues. Ben's striped suits come through without any distracting shimmer (in fact, I only noticed one scene, with striped wallpaper, that sent my monitor crazy), and there's zero noticeable edge enhancement or artifacting.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack effectively recreates the original broadcast sound. (Watch for that vintage NBC "In Stereo Where Available" logo at the top of one episode!) It's nothing fancy, but it gets the job done in balancing dialogue and music. No subtitles are offered, although the discs do include closed captioning.
Sadly, no bonus material is provided, except for a batch of previews for other CBS/Paramount TV releases.
While the presentation is lacking, and while you can catch episodes of the show twelve times a day on local TV and basic cable, this first season set is still Recommended solely on the power of the show itself. "Matlock" is a series that never grows old, and with a show as rewatchable as this, it deserves a spot in any mystery fan's collection.