A network switcheroo saves ol' Ben's keister for another three seasons. CBS Video and Paramount have released Matlock: The Seventh Season, a five-disc, 14-episode (many of them are two-parters) collection representing the long-running mystery's first half-season on ABC after getting dropped by NBC (this go-around was slotted in as a mid-season pick-up in January, 1993). A few tweaks to the cast, and location filming now in Griffith's hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, are about the only difference here between ABC's version of Matlock and NBC's...and that's just fine with me. Episode teasers are included as a bonus for these fair-to-middling transfers.
Hot-lanta, GA. Wiley, cagey ol' defense attorney Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith) has more tricks up his sleeve than a monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine. At a fee of $100,000 a case (and rising), Ben keeps the common riff-raff away while remaining the go-to guy in Atlanta when an innocent defendant's case seems hopeless. Aided by his smart, dishy new partner, daughter Leanne McIntyre (Brynn Thayer), with vigorous leg-work executed by private investigator Conrad McMasters (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.) and young attorney Cliff Lewis (Daniel Roebuck), Matlock always manages to pull his impossible cases out of their nosedives with a combined application of steel-trap logic, coon hound doggedness, and deceptively laid-back Southern charm that masks an ever-probing, always suspicious intellect. While Ben's former steady, D.A. Julie March (Julie Sommers), seems to have taken a powder, he still has an eye for the ladies...even if he spends most of his time with his daughter and co-workers, with the occasional pop-in from cranky neighbor/nemesis, Billy Lewis (Warren Frost), the father of Cliff.
Reading over my review from last year of Matlock's sixth season set, I'm not sure there's too much more I can add to my comments back then about the series' aesthetics and goals, or how viewers keep coming back to this homey mystery show. Despite some cast changes and a noticeable switch in locale, Matlock keeps delivering the low-key goods in this go-around, a sure sign that the production team, writers, and performers were in a comfortable groove that ensured that "repeatable experience" that is so sought-after by weekly television series. Apparently, the production move to the Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC (where Griffith lived) was to accommodate the star who wanted to avoid all those cross-country flights to L.A.. "Atmosphere" is a subtle but recognizable element of any TV series, and while the producers keep the ratio about 50/50 for set/location shooting, you can feel the difference in the NC location work, giving Matlock an even more laid-back (if that's possible) feel than when it was shooting in L.A..
As for the cast changes, even though I missed sexy Nancy Stafford this time out, the addition of classy, gorgeous Brynn Thayer (One Life to Live, The Hero and the Terror) is a good one. In the previous season, the writers might very carefully hint that maybe ol' Ben Matlock was thinking decidedly un-paternal thoughts about his stacked employee, but with Thayer around as his "new" daughter (during the first seasons, actress Linda Purl was supposedly Matlock's only daughter), Griffith has quite a few opportunities to act fatherly, resulting in some funny scenes of Thayer clucking over the naughty Ben (sneaking food he shouldn't eat, sprucing him up for dates), and some quiet moments where Griffith dispenses sage advice to his sometimes troubled daughter (it's too bad they didn't let Thayer be a little naughtier, as well―the camera will occasionally catch her playful smile that suggests Leanne isn't always so "nice"). It's a shame that Clarence Gilyard, Jr., whom I also enjoyed for his cheerful, sometimes rambunctious chemistry with Griffith, is fazed out this season; his move to another soon-to-be long-running series (Chuck Norris' CBS actioner, Walker: Texas Ranger) left a hole in the series filled by Daniel Roebuck, the eager-to-please son of Matlock scourge Billy Lewis. I'm not sure if production was up-in-the-air because of these cast changes, but Roebuck is only in a handful or less episodes this go-around; he's an ingratiating presence, but it's difficult to see how he'll fit in at this point, since he's barely around. Speaking of the Billy Lewis character, played perfectly by Warren Frost (probably best known to TV viewers for his stint as George Costanza's would-be father-in-law on Seinfeld), it's great to see his part beefed up some. His funny whining/complaining act sparks well with Griffith, reminding me of some of the eccentric characters Andy Taylor had to put up with in Mayberry. Hopefully, he'll be around more in the upcoming eighth season (Griffith is quite funny this season, too; the season's best episode, The Ghost, has Ben being hired by a real ghost, and Griffith's flustered, slapstick sequences are quite amusing).
Speaking of cranky, I like how the writers are increasingly portraying Matlock as defiantly his "age." I love that he's older, and fighting against any perception that somehow he has to change with the times. The season premiere, The Vacation, is a good example. Matlock's first scene involves him hurting his back; he's fallible and mortal right from the start, but he doesn't wallow in it, or give in to it. Indeed, he's cantankerously willful in wanting to continue living his life the way he wants to. His road map in his car is from 1961. He bitches out a store clerk because he doesn't want to buy 12 hotdog buns in a package: he wants what he wants. He even yells back at a judge (with a quick-but-slightly-insincere, "Your honor," thrown in to appease)―something Matlock's older (and increasingly marginalized) audience must have loved. When Ben does try to get with the times, changing his diet of rich food on Leanne's advice in aid of snagging sexy widow Anita Morris (in The Legacy), that course-change of his true nature results in karmic payback: Morris wants a real man who enjoys his food. It's a cliché to discuss today's television landscape and its routine exclusion of older characters (unless they're included for satirical purpose), but most clichés usually have some kind of grounding in fact, so it's no wonder that older viewers cotton so loyally to characters like Ben Matlock―after all, there are so few of them around the dial.
If nothing major seemed to change as far as Matlock's aesthetics go when the series moved to ABC, a noticeable upward shift did occur in its ratings. Debuting as a mid-season replacement in January, 1993, Matlock was scheduled into ABC's Thursday 8:00pm slot, replacing the much-hyped disaster, Delta, with Delta Burke, Linda Lavin's struggling return to TV, Room for Two, and the ambitious WWII period piece Homefront at 9:00pm (when Matlock had its numerous two-parters). Matlock may have lost out demographically to direct competition over on Fox (The Simpsons and Martin); however, with no threat from CBS' Cops rip-off, Top Cops, or A Different World and Rhythm & Blues' last gasps on NBC, Matlock crawled back into the Nielsen Top Thirty, finishing 29th for the year―good enough to convince ABC they made the smart move in picking up the series from NBC, and ensuring it received another season order.
Here are the 14 episodes (some are two-parters) of the five-disc set, Matlock: The Seventh Season, as described on the inside DVD cover:
The Final Affair
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.