Imagine Sheriff Andy Taylor older and now an attorney, and you pretty much have the set up for Matlock. Forget for a second that both characters were played by Andy Griffith. That’s not all they have in common. Matlock is every bit the “southern gentleman” that Taylor was. He might be a little smarter, but he walks and talks like Andy Taylor.
Matlock began life as a television movie from Dean Hargrove, who brought us Columbo. Hargrove would later work the same magic with Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. In fact the two shows could easily have been companion pieces. Both featured sit-com stars from the 1950’s and 60’s that had become somewhat iconic characters. Both would don the role of professionals. Both shows would subscribe to the “formula” mode of storytelling. Diary Of A Perfect Murder would set up the Matlock formula. It’s simple, really. Matlock was a lawyer in Atlanta. Some wronged defendant, usually charged with murder, would show up asking for Matlock’s help. Matlock and his team would investigate the crime with an eye toward, as OJ Simpson is fond of saying, finding the real killer. His team consisted of his daughter Charlene, herself a competent lawyer, and Tyler Hudson (Holliday), his private investigator. Charlene’s role in the pilot was played by Lori Lethin, but she was replaced by Linda Purl once the show went to series. The cast was not the only change to the show from pilot to series. The Matlock character was less Andy Taylor and a little more slick at first. I’m sure that while it was intended to show Matlock’s prowess as a high priced attorney, somewhere along the line it became obvious that the show’s finest asset was Griffith himself and that southern charm he was already famous for. Whatever the reason, you can see the character soften significantly during the early episodes of the season. And that decision was a smart one, as Matlock would continue for nearly a decade.
The first year of Matlock is a must for fans of the show. Yes, I know you can catch Matlock reruns almost as often as Law & Order, but those episodes are edited. I for one am getting tired of the flagrant use of “bugs” on television anymore. Some of them are wildly animated and incredibly distracting. If you’re getting as fed up with television as I am, DVD releases like this are your answer to those over-commercialized blues. We begin to see into Matlock’s past with The Stripper. A favor he did for a friend years ago figures into a case he has now. The series began to add some life in the father/daughter relationship with the episode The Seduction. Matlock defends a football star, famous for his liaisons with women. Charlene expresses some unflattering opinions of the client, and the first real chemistry begins to develop between these characters. One of the best episodes of the season is the two-parter, The Don. Matlock rather reluctantly agrees to get involved in a mobster’s trial, risking his own life in the process. Griffith is at his best here with the first real display of more complex emotions for the character. While he’s not a fan of the mob, he begins to see redemption for his client in his family. Humor is a strong element in Matlock, and nowhere is it better than in The Angel. Matlock defends a rock star accused of murder. He’s trying to deal with her prima donna attitude but is hampered when Hudson is falling all over himself to impress the attractive star. The culture clash alone is worth the time spent watching this one. One of Matlock’s mentors needs his help in The Professor. Unlike many top television lawyers, Matlock’s lost a case here and there. The Convict exposes him to the consequences of one of his past losses. Matlock is accused of jury bribery in The People vs. Matlock. There’s something for everyone in the inaugural season of Matlock.
Each episode of Matlock is presented in its original broadcast full frame format. There’s not a lot to love in this transfer. The picture is almost always grainy. There are too many overt instances of compression artifact. In general this was not a carefully prepared transfer. I’m sure Paramount expects the fans to take it as it is. Colors are fair, but there is a subdued overall tone to the entire presentation. Black levels suffer the most and are quite poor.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track delivers exactly what you are looking for and nothing more. The dialog is clear, and that’s all you’re going to get out of this minimalist presentation. The jazz music theme comes out nice and clean.
You can certainly see the Hargrove influence in Matlock from the start. The show is almost never about the mystery, as we often already know who the real killer is. The show is about the character. As long as Griffith was able to work his own magic, it almost didn’t matter what else was going on. Matlock wasn’t a great show by any means, but it was an easy one to watch and enjoy. There was just enough of a mystery to keep the pages turning but not so much that it required your intense concentration. It’s the kind of show most of us might not even be willing to admit to watching. If you prefer, you can tuck the case away in the corner of your DVD shelf where it’s not so easy to see. Don’t worry about me. “Your secret’s safe with me.”