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Sunday, June 28, 2009

MATLOCK: THE THIRD SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

It's a shame that "Matlock" is widely perceived as an "old people's show." I never watched it during its first run for that very reason, figuring that it would be about as much fun as spending an hour with Andy Rooney. Boy, was I wrong!

MATLOCK: THE THIRD SEASON has converted me. This 5-disc set of twenty episodes has turned me into a certified "Matlock" addict, marvelling at the sharp, clever writing and hanging on every nuance of Andy Griffith's brilliant performance as the title character. Griffith milks the role for all it's worth, with such a relaxed, natural style that it barely looks like he's working at all. Which, of course, is a testament to the effort, skill, and devious intelligence behind the creation of his onscreen persona.

Ben Matlock has the soul of a cantankerous country lawyer in the big city (Atlanta, Georgia) with the kind of clientele that reflects his exhorbitant fee. He's not a big spender, though--he lives in a modest suburban house, his favorite food is hot dogs, and he wears the same light gray suit every day. Although possessing an easygoing sense of humor most of the time, he's still a crotchety old coot who's set in his ways. This sometimes lulls suspects into underestimating until he gets them on the witness stand and goes in for the kill.

Griffith's co-stars changed a lot over the show's nine seasons (1986-1995); in year three, he's ably supported by regulars Nancy Stafford, Julie Sommars, and Kene Holliday. The statuesque Stafford plays Matlock's assistant, Michelle Thomas, and aside from being a knockout she's good at giving the star someone to trade dialogue with. Even more appealing is Sommar's character Julie March, a district attorney who has some sweetly romantic interplay with Matlock when she isn't opposing him in court. Unfortunately, her character is sparsely seen, probably to give Ben more combative courtroom opponents like APOCALYPSE NOW's Albert Hall, who makes numerous guest appearances as a no-nonsense D.A. Holliday is great as private investigator Tyler Hudson, taking care of Matlock's legwork in addition to handling most of the show's infrequent action scenes.

One of the best things about season three is that it introduces Andy Griffith's old pal Don Knotts as his bothersome new neighbor, Les "Ace" Calhoun. Similar to their relationship as Mayberry's sheriff Andy Taylor and deputy Barney Fife, Ben and Les are an odd couple who have a warm affection for each other even though Les can often be an insufferable, self-important screw-up who gets in the way a lot--in other words, he's not much different from Barney Fife. Knotts is his usual excellent self in the role and his appearances on the show are always a cause for celebration.

Some of the other noteworthy guest stars to appear in season three include Seymore Cassell, Cindy Morgan (TRON), Lisa Hartman, Dorian Harewood, David Ogden Stiers, Georg Stanford Brown, Mitchell Laurance, Richard Herd, Dennis Franz, Ford Rainey, Nana Visitor ("Deep Space Nine"), Peter Mark Richman, John Harkins, Dirk Blocker, Frances Fisher, Claude Akins, Don Swayze, Fran Ryan, Heidi Swedberg (the ill-fated Susan from "Seinfeld"), former "Andy Griffith Show" regular Jack Dodson, Roger Davis, Anne Francis, Thomas "Tiny" Lister, Roddy McDowall, Sam McMurray, Nia Peeples, and John Rubinstein. Daniel Roebuck would join the cast a few years later but shows up a couple of times here as aspiring attorney Alex Winter.

Like "Perry Mason", each episode begins with a murder and offers several suspects besides the one actually charged with the crime (whom we know is innocent, or else Matlock wouldn't be defending them). Then it's up to Matlock to investigate and uncover the evidence that the police missed, mull it all over in his mind until he comes up with some brilliant deduction, and then do his stuff in the courtroom. One thing's for sure--Matlock gets away with a lot more than Perry Mason ever did. He's often given such free reign while grilling a witness that you expect to hear an objection after every other sentence, and when it doesn't come you wonder if the judge and D.A. have fallen asleep or something. The only thing that I don't like about this show is that once Matlock gets that final witness/suspect on the stand, his prolonged and barely-contested dismantling of the poor sap is pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel. Still, Griffith is always able to play each of these scenes to the hilt.

Be that as it may, this collection is filled with sharply-written, well-mounted episodes that rarely fail to entertain. Some of them are directed by formerly blacklisted Leo Penn (father of Sean and Chris), who also appears onscreen as a murdered priest in the aptly-titled "The Priest." Don Knotts' series debut is in the episode "The Lemon", in which he gets gypped by a crooked car salesman who later turns up underneath one of his own cars, with Les himself as the main suspect. "The Black Widow" is an intriguing look at one of the rare cases Matlock lost, after which the wrongly-convicted man is paroled after seven years only to discover that the wife he's supposed to have killed is still alive--whereupon he gets charged with murdering her again!

In "The Model", Matlock is hit by a car just as he makes a mental breakthrough in a case, then must struggle to remember it while lying in a hospital bed. "The Vendetta" guest-stars Mitchell Laurance as a revenge-seeking man who holds Michelle, Julie, and Tyler hostage in Ben's office until he arrives. This turns out to be a clip show, but it's one of the best I've ever seen and ends on a delightfully hilarious note. The set also features three 2-part episodes that are consistently involving.

All in all, this is a superb collection. Aside from being Grandpa Simpson's favorite show, MATLOCK is one of the most entertaining series I've ever watched--it fully qualifies as "classic television" in every sense of the term. And as a showcase for the great Andy Griffith's remarkable skill as an actor, it's in a class by itself.

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