Matlock, the anchor of the five main Dean Hargrove-produced mystery/courtroom drama series and TV-movies of the mid-1980s to early-2000s, was the kind of show I never never ever watched when it first aired, but against all reason enjoy quite a bit as TV comfort food now. Like other Hargrove-produced series, Matlock sticks to formulae long-established in shows like Perry Mason and Columbo (Hargrove co-produced the latter, along with the Perry Mason TV movies of the '80s and '90s) - but ingratiatingly so.
All of Hargrove's series - Matlock, Jake and the Fatman, The Father Dowling Mysteries, and Diagnosis Murder (and later in Hallmark Channel shows like Murder 101 - are mainly vehicles for their stars, TV veterans all (Andy Griffith, William Conrad, Tom Bosley, Dick Van Dyke) and their mix of iconic guest stars and cheap but sometimes up-and-coming younger talent is fun to watch.
When they were new these shows appealed to a singularly aging demographic; The Simpsons spoofed this frequently, with the undemanding Matlock a big favorite among Springfield's senior citizens. Part of Matlock's appeal is what was an aging dinosaur type of show when it was new is all but extinct today. Myriad older actors whose last credits included a couple of Murder She Wrotes and a Matlock or two are for the most part dead, retired, or playing judges on shows like Boston Legal. Watching a guest star like Robert Culp match wits with an Andy Griffith or William Conrad might pale to Culp's best Columbos, but they're enjoyable all the same.
CBS DVD/Paramount's release of Matlock - The Second Season packs all 23 episodes from the 1987-88 season onto six single-sided, dual-layered discs. This is one of those shot-on-film/finished-on-tape shows so the picture quality is inherently ugly. Even when shows like this first aired they looked soft and unattractive (so much so that for a long while back in the late-1980s I was convinced something was wrong with my cable reception). On DVD they look fine, but if shows like this are ever going to join the high-definition age, the companies that own them will need to go back to square-one and piece 'em back together to facilitate high-def masters. (Matlock's opening titles are appallingly ugly; even on small TVs it looks like crap!)
The origin of these shows is easy enough to trace. Partly they go back to the wildly successful Columbo series of TV movies once part of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie. Mainly though the resurgence of the mystery drama can be traced back to the award-winning box-office success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot movie. Its big box office returns led to several more Christie adaptations, and after Sherlock Holmes was successfully revived in Britain in the early-1980s (in the landmark series with Jeremy Brett), new Poirot and Miss Marple shows became, like Sherlock Holmes, popular the world over.
Angela Lansbury, who appeared in the Poirot movie Death on the Nile (1978), the ill-fated remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic mystery The Lady Vanishes (1979), and who finally played Miss Marple herself in The Mirror Crack'd (1980), launched the American mystery show craze with Murder She Wrote, in which she played a modern-dress Miss Marple in all but name. The series was phenomenally successful; if you count the later TV-movies it was on the air for almost 20 years.
Hargrove returned to the genre with Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of an incredible 29 Perry Mason TV-movies. The following year he executive-produced Return to Mayberry, another ratings blockbuster starring Andy Griffith. The following season Matlock was on the air, and by and large it takes the original Perry Mason TV series format with Griffith playing a variation of his familiar persona with a dash of Clarence Darrow tossed into the mix. (His light-gray suit is perpetually wrinkled, as if fresh out of the wash.)
As high-priced attorney Ben Matlock - at $100,000 per case, he's not the guy to hire if you have some past-due parking violations - Andy Griffith isn't quite what you'd expect, at least not in Matlock - The Second Season. He's so low-key throughout he almost disappears. He mumbles and rarely speaks above a whisper. TV historian Stephen Bowie suggests Griffith may still have been suffering the aftereffects of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which left him paralyzed and unable to walk for most of 1983. I'm told he bounced back eventually and even became rather hammy at times later in the series, but here he's like an older Andy Taylor on Prozac.
Though the second season of Matlock may not be catching Griffith at the peak of health, his popularity, particularly in what's commonly referred to as "the South" cannot be over-estimated. (Recently, there's been much speculation that a pro-Obama video featuring longtime Democrat Griffith and Ron Howard reprising their characters from The Andy Griffith Show may single-handedly have swung North Carolina's presidential race in Obama's favor.) The show's popularity grew slightly in the ratings, with Matlock placing 14th in the ratings that year, up one notch from the first season.
At the beginning of Season 2, it's explained that series regular Charlene Matlock (Linda Purl), Ben's daughter, has left Ben's Atlanta-based firm to start her own practice, though Matlock's P.I. associate, Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday), to Matlock what Paul Drake was to Perry Mason, is still on the case. New to this season are legal partner Michelle Thomas (Nancy Stafford, late of St. Elsewhere) and perky Cassie Phillips (Kari Lizer), Ben's legal assistant. In some second season shows, Ben squares off with District Attorney Julie March, the series' Hamilton Burger.
The show has all the advantages and disadvantages of other Hargrove shows. Episodes are generally inferior to period and contemporary, adapted and original British mysteries of the same era, though what shows like Matlock lack in nuance it makes up somewhat in star power. If you regularly watch mystery shows and old-time courtroom dramas, Matlock is awfully predictable. And yet it's enjoyable in much the same way B-mysteries - Charlie Chan, Michael Shayne, Sherlock Holmes, etc. - were in the 1930s and '40s.
Guest stars this season include a mix of old veterans and '80s TV stars, some of whom would also turn up in other Hargrove-produced shows: Leon Greene, Bruce Greenwood, David McCallum, Don Murray, Greg Mullavy, David Ogden Stiers, Dick Bakalyan, Dick Butkus, Robert Downey, Sr., Robert Culp, Ralph Bellamy, Nancy Dussault, Scott Bakula, George Gaynes, Alan Fudge, Dick Gautier, Ken Kercheval, Sheldon Leonard, Vincent Schiavelli, Bruce Weitz, Marg Helgenberger, Jason Bateman, Corbin Bernsen, Aneta Corsaut, Rhea Perlman, Bette White, Bert Remsen, Jason Wingreen, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Judith Baldwin, Jason Evers, William Schallert, Fredd Wayne, Jim Beaver, Seymour Cassel, Shaun Cassidy, Max Gail, Geoffrey Lewis, John Randolph, Jerry Houser, Bill Mumy, Mason Adams, and Alan Oppenheimer.
Video & Audio
Why CBS DVD would release this and Hawaii Five-O in single-season sets but break up other shows like Perry Mason and Cannon is anyone's guess, but the shows are all here. It's noted that "music has been changed for this home entertainment version," but I didn't notice anything on the episodes I watched. (Readers are welcome to email this reviewer about soundtrack changes which I'll happily amend to this review.) As stated above the postproduction method of taking film dailies and editing the show on tape saved money back in the 1980s but is the bane of studios with television holdings in 2009 looking to expand into high-def channels and other venues.
The Dolby Digital stereo, one of the first series to offer it in fact, is clean and clear, and is closed-captioned though no other subtitle or audio options are included. The only Extra Feature are Alternate Endings for "The Hucksters." See the episode and you'll know why.
Matlock has bigger guest stars than Diagnosis Murder and Jake and the Fatman, but those shows are slightly more enjoyable owing to Griffith's very subdued presence, at least during this season. Still, for older mystery fans like myself, Matlock - The Second Season is pricey, but Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is now available for pre-order.