The late Andy Griffith , of course, will be best remembered for his namesake “Andy Griffith Show,” which was an American institution in the 1960s. But I’ll remember him best for his folksy Atlanta attorney Ben Matlock.
In the summer, when kids should be playing outside and running around, my brother and I would hole up in the only cold part of the house — the basement — and start our day with back-to-back reruns of “Matlock.”
There was something comforting about the show’s predictable format. We’d start with an unidentifiable person in black committing a crime in the dead of night against a victim Mr. Matlock surely knew (Atlanta has never seemed so small). Matlock would survey the scene with his trusty team — an investigator (my favorite was Tyler) and a female sidekick (my favorite was his younger daughter Charlene) — and start on his quest for truth.
The courtroom showdowns were the best. Whoever was put on the stand with less than 10 minutes remaining in the show was definitely going to confess by the end of the episode. Matlock would grab a hot dog on the way out of the courthouse (much to his daughters’ dismay), and the show ended in a comical freeze frame of Griffith’s kind face with that famous theme song kicking in, capped by a single trumpet blast.
Compared with modern law dramas, the glaring difference is the shades of gray that “Matlock” (almost) never waded into. When you finish an episode of “Law & Order,” you feel more unsettled than when you started; not only was the case not resolved, but you’re not even sure who committed the crime in the first place. I understand that’s more true-to-life, but we’re talking about entertainment here. Sometimes, instead of an indictment on the modern judicial system, I just want a bad guy getting dragged off to prison after a cantankerous man in a white seersucker suit gets the best of him.
But that’s not to say Matlock always won. My absolute favorite episode was one where Matlock realized halfway through his investigation that his client had committed the crime. It appeared that he was going to get the guilty woman off when he tricked a witness into mistakenly identifying the woman’s best friend as the person he saw the night of the murder. But justice prevailed (as always) when Matlock’s setup prompted his client to confess to protect her innocent friend.
So maybe it always was that simple on “Matlock.” And that winning recipe worked because of Griffith. He imbued every episode with humor and earnestness and made you believe every formulaic bit of it. I still catch the occasional “Matlock” episode, and it’s still as comforting as always.
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