Hey, you punk kids! Get off my lawn--I'm trying to watch Matlock! CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount have released Matlock: The Eighth Season, a six-disc, 20-episode collection of the long-running mystery series' 1993-1994 season. No big shifts in either execution or cast here for Andy Griffith's penultimate go-around as 'ol Ben Matlock...and that's no doubt what long-time fans wanted in this comfy-cozy show (we remember you, Andy, even if Hollywood and the Oscars didn't). No extras, other than episode teasers, for these (expectedly) problematic 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 partner, daughter Leanne McIntyre (Brynn Thayer), with vigorous leg-work executed by slightly befuddled 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. Comedic relief is supplied by the occasional pop-in from cranky neighbor/nemesis, Billy Lewis (Warren Frost), the crotchety father of Cliff.
If it aint' broke...don't fix it. That seems to be the guiding rule for this eighth season of Matlock: the majority of episodes featuring a gently comedic tone best suited to Griffith's aw shucks demeanor, with some more serious-minded examples added to mix things up a bit. I've written before about Matlock, so I'm familiar with the evolution of the series, but to be honest, I would be hard-pressed to be able to distinguish most of these episodes as either seventh or eighth season efforts. Everyone is back from the previous season (Clarence Gilyard, Jr., by this point working on Chuck Norris' Walker, Texas Ranger, makes one tiny, inexplicable appearance here before disappearing for good), while the format stays the same: keep Andy's scenes to a minimum while the low-watt and anonymous supporting casts keep the exposition lazily rolling along (no "spot the has-been" here, as in Murder, She Wrote). And while ratings weren't exactly spectacular for the former NBC series' second season on ABC (35th in the Nielsen's), they were good enough...and that seems to be the laid-back, easy come, easy go M.O. for the show as a whole, at this point (more changes were coming, however, for the show's last go-around...).
Along with conventional, unsurprising efforts, such as the well-plotted The Crook, about a rare book thief in Ben's church choir, and clip show The Murder Game, a few oddball episodes manage to pop up. The P.I. is obviously a backdoor pilot from the producers of Matlock, featuring George Peppard and Tracy Nelson as a fire and water father and daughter detective team (Peppard, out of breath and looking unwell, would die soon after this was proposed), while Brennen certainly feels like a pilot, with great character actor George Dzundza doing well as an intelligent, rule-breaking assistant D.A. sparring with Ben. More serious efforts, though, impress this season. The Diner is another one of those marvelous flashback episode with Griffith playing Ben Matlock's father, Charlie Matlock, in a period outing that could be the flipside look at Griffith's fabled Mayberry: a small, bigoted Southern town in the early 1960s rocked by the murder of its white sheriff (the superlative, criminally under-recognized Stan Shaw--The Boys in Company C-- is a stand-out...as usual). The Capital Offense is a nervy, grim little surprise that you first assume is going to be funny (Ben gets a home computer he can't work), before it drives on to its suspenseful ending as Ben tries to save an innocent man from the electric chair. And classy, sexy Brynn Thayer gets a chance to shine in two excellent, zero-jokes outings: The Defendant, where trusting Leanne gets played by a murderer (the obnoxious, ubiquitous-in-the-80s-and-90s Richard Gilliland), and The Temptation, where handsome strong-arm thug Brett Cullen stalks Leanne...and breaks her heart (it's a shame the talented Thayer would leave after this season).
Still, when you think of the typical Matlock episode, you expect at least a modicum of Griffith's trademark folksy humor sprinkled among the bodies, and this season doesn't disappoint. Anytime Warren Frost as cranky, willful a**hole Billy Lewis shows his pissing and moaning mug, I start cracking up, and he has several good appearances this season. In the two-parter, The Kidnapping, he undergoes almost instantaneous Stockholm Syndrome when he immediately identifies with his hapless kidnappers...who hate Ben almost as much as he does (Griffith incredulously yelling into the phone, "Half a million dollars!?!" when he hears Billy's ransom amount, is priceless). In The Godfather, Billy invites an entire wedding party and their guests to crash at Ben's house while a murder is investigated (Griffith does his put-upon/put-out act with consummate skill). And in the two-parter, The Fatal Seduction, Billy loses his sister--the sister whom Ben briefly dated decades ago, an act Billy has never forgiven Ben for--and demands that Ben accompany him to the funeral (Frost, always amusing whenever Billy is at his most grating, has a nice counter-moment at a grave site, where Billy admits to his dead sister what a rotten brother he was to her).
Griffith, though, gets most of the laughs generated this season, and rightfully so (his comedic timing, even if slowed ever so slightly by age, is still impeccable). Whether he's deliberately playing broad (the season opener, The Play, where Ben Matlock proves he's no stage actor; Matlock's Bad, Bad, Bad Dream, a period fantasy episode where he plays an alcoholic Depression-era lawyer), or delightfully strange and whimsical (his solitary laughter at guest star Milton Berle's tired shtick in The Last Laugh is weirdly priceless), Griffith can get more done with less than just about any actor I can think of on TV. In The View, an obvious rip-off of Rear Window, Griffith has a few scenes playing gin with Thayer that are as funny as anything I've seen him do. Pulling out that earlier, louder, more aggressively playful version of Andy Taylor, Griffith taunts and teases Thayer, annoying the hell out of her before she beats him hands down again and again. They're wonderfully funny moments (I wish the series had more of these scenes, rather than all that rather anonymous mystery exposition), touched with a bit of poignancy today now that Griffith--a TV star you somehow thought would always be around--has passed.
The Fatal Seduction (Part 1)
The Fatal Seduction (Part 2)
The Last Laugh
The Capital Offense
Matlock's Bad, Bad, Bad Dream
The Kidnapping (Part 1)
The Kidnapping (Part 2)
The Murder Game
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.