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Reviewed by Will Harris
r. Simpson, don't you worry. I watched ‘Matlock’ in a bar last night. The sound wasn't on, but I think I got the gist of it.”
– Lionel Hutz, Attorney at Law
"I say we call Matlock. He'll find the culprit. It's probably that evil Gavin MacLeod or George 'Goober' Lindsay."
– Abe Simpson
It’s gotten so that the mere mention of Atlanta attorney Ben Matlock is enough to make people laugh out loud -- and not in a good way. Andy Griffith’s folksy Southern lawyer has suffered years of merciless mockery at the hands of the writers of “The Simpsons;” it’s a tough sell to convince anyone that the show was anything other than a “Perry Mason” re-tread for the silver-haired set. Given that I’d never really watched the show, however, I was actually kind of excited about checking out “Matlock: The First Season.”
There’s no television critic worth his or her salt who’d deny that Griffith is a television legend, and there’s a reason for that: the guy’s one of the most genuinely likeable guys ever to grace the small screen, with an amiable nature that shines through in whatever role he might play. When “Matlock” first premiered on NBC in 1986, not many of television’s old guard were succeeding in their attempts to revive their careers (three words: “Life with Lucy”), but given Griffith’s various forays into both comedy and drama over the years, he had an edge on the competition when he decided to try his hand at playing a lawyer. Fortunately, this series proved a bit more successful than his previous attempt at TV drama (the 1979 one-season wonder “Salvage 1”), and, as history has shown us, the man formerly known as Sheriff Andy Taylor soon settled comfortably into the second iconic role of his television career.
Ben Matlock (Griffith) is a staple of the Atlanta court system, earning a hefty chunk of change -- we’re talking a hundred grand here -- to take on a case. Whenever potential clients balk at the cost, he gives them his most charming smile and reminds them, “If I win, it’ll look like a bargain!” As with all good TV lawyers, he doles out quite a lot of these bargains, rarely losing a case but invariably waiting ‘til the last possible minute to secure the evidence that’ll save the day. His fellow counsel is his daughter, Charlene (Linda Purl, though she’s played by Lori Lethin in the pilot), with the majority of the legwork being done by his street-smart right-hand man, Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday), and together the trio fight injustice throughout Hotlanta.
As with almost all mystery-of-the-week series, half the fun comes from trying to figure out whodunit, while the other half involves enjoying the performances of the guest stars who have been brought in to participate. Certainly the most jarring of the bunch is Dick Van Dyke, playing completely against type as a judge who, in the opening moments of the episode, stabs his ex-girlfriend to death and frames her boyfriend for the murder, only to turn up on the bench when the case is tried. (The episode also features Piper Laurie as the murdered woman’s mother.) There’s also an extremely strong two-parter entitled “The Don,” with Jose Ferrer as the head of an organized crime family who’s framed for murder, and William Conrad as the grumbling D.A. who opposes Matlock in the trial. In a short time, Conrad would tweak the character for his own series, “Jake and the Fatman,” but the real irony is that his future co-star, Joe Penny, appears in this episode as well. Other famous faces turning up throughout the course of this first season include Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Zane, Roddy McDowall, Chazz Palminteri, Timothy Busfield, Greg Evigan, Hector Elizondo, Jonathan Frakes, Christopher McDonald and Jeff Conaway. In a bonus for TV geeks, both Norman Fell and Audra Lindley (a.k.a. the Ropers from “Three’s Company”) make appearances, albeit in different episodes.
Okay, so the series might’ve gotten into a formulaic rut over the course of its long run. Here, however, it’s still fresh, with Griffith’s charm on display at all times, so don’t go dismissing “Matlock” just because your grandparents like it. As legal shows go, it’s a far cry from “Damages,” and, yes, it might be a slightly guilty pleasure, but if you take a gander at a few episodes of this Season One set, you’ll be surprised to find that it’s better than you thought -- and you might just find yourself sucked into watching a few more.
Special Features: Gee, what a surprise: a Paramount TV-DVD set that’s completely devoid of anything even remotely resembling a special feature. (We’ll stop bashing them when they start stepping up to the plate.)