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Series / Matlock

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A long-running Courtroom Drama about elderly Southern defense attorney Ben Matlock, played by Andy Griffith. Both a series that ran for many years and a short series of Made for TV Movies.

Benjamin Leighton Matlock is a folksy Southerner with a moral code from before The '60s and a sense of justice. (One episode has him reveal that he grew up in a North Carolina town that no longer exists.) He currently practices law in Atlanta, Georgia, which, at the time this series was running, was one of the least Southern places in the Deep South. He defends his clients with help from a private detective friend, Courtroom Antics (done folksily), and finding out who actually did it. (In one movie, Matlock actually kept the case going until he found out who did the murder, even though his client was actually cleared and the prosecutor was ready to drop the case.)

Structurally, this series is very much like Perry Mason. Probably not coincidentally, Matlock's creator, Dean Hargrove, and his production partner, Fred Silverman (the same man who, at various times, worked as an executive for all three major television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC) produced a string of Perry Mason made-for-TV movies beginning three months before Matlock premiered. But there is a big difference between Mason and Matlock. Perry Mason (based in Los Angeles in most of the franchise; based in Denver for the TV movies) is always intense and menacing by nature; Matlock is old-fashioned, folksy and grandfatherly.

Matlock is one of many shows from The '80s with geriatric protagonists; unlike several of the others (such as The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote) it never developed a Periphery Demographic of younger viewers, and indeed is mostly remembered (thanks in large part to the efforts of The Simpsons) as a show beloved by the elderly. Ironically, it never aired on the "old folks' network", CBS.

The lead production company, Viacom, held the rights to The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith's previous series, at the time Matlock premiered.

A 2-part episode from the first season featured a character that would be reworked into one of the lead characters of the CBS series Jake and the Fatman, which in turn spun off Diagnosis: Murder. Through crossovers on the latter series (including an appearance by Ben Matlock) these three shows also share a universe with the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mannix, and Promised Land along with that show's parent series Touched by an Angel. All of this content is currently owned by Paramount Global, though the TV shows and the M:I films were cast under separate ownership from 2006-19 (the whole shared universe first came under common ownership in 2000).

In 2023 CBS announced a new Matlock series, starring Kathy Bates as Madeline "Matty" Matlock. Rather than being a reboot or reimagining, the new series acknowledges the original as a Show Within a Show and revolves around Matty, a lawyer who's trying to revive her career after several decades out of practice and notes that she shares a last name with Andy Griffith's character.

The series contains examples of:

  • The '80s: The show started in 1986.
  • The '90s: The show concluded in 1995.
  • Artistic License Law: Just pretend that you're a lawyer for the prosecution when you watch this. Then call out "Objection!" every time that a real prosecutor would during Matlock's questioning of witnesses. It will make you hoarse.
  • Asshole Victim: Happens more often than not — whether it's a mobster, blackmailer, or just a Jerkass, they tend to be the victims. Not that that always happens, though. Sometimes they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply had enemies because of their position or circumstance.
  • Back for the Dead:
    • Lieutenant Bob Brooks (David Froman). He was a recurring character in the early seasons of the show, but eventually retired. When he returned for the last season, it was to have him killed off in a rather grisly fashion.
    • Julie (not the prosecutor; this Julie predated her debut) from the Season 1 episode "The Sisters" returned in the Season 4 entry "The Kidnapper" to exact revenge on Matlock for getting her sent to an institution for the criminally insane. Julie is adept at psychological torture and had previously manipulated her gentle sister Emily into committing a murder with her. When they were split up upon incarceration, Emily was so damaged by these events that she was Driven to Suicide. Julie decides to kidnap Ben but falls over a banister as she unsuccessfully tries to stab Matlock from behind and dies.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: Weaponized by Charlene in the pilot on at least two people who have been unreasonable with her. She tells them something they want to hear when they think they've managed to weasel their way out of being dragged into court, then spitefully slaps them with a subpoena.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Arguably, crooked lawyers are this to Matlock. While fairly cantankerous on occasion, Matlock seldom displays anything resembling true rage. A rare exception was in the episode "The Foursome", in which the prosecuting attorney (a protégé of Julie's) alters the evidence to get a conviction, and Matlock reveals her duplicity during his appeal. When the attorney, facing disbarment and imprisonment, begs Matlock for a second chance, you can see the Tranquil Fury on his face as he calmly says, "No, I don't think so." Julie for her part was also quietly furious with her protege for disgracing the legal profession.
    • Do NOT EVER deceive Matlock. You will pay one way or another.
    • Also, one surefire way to anger Ben is to interrupt his sleep and make him deal with a problem during an unholy time of night. While he will come to your rescue, he will shuffle in in an unkempt manner, complain about being woken up, and be far less likely to listen to your plight and sympathize with you.
    • Matlock shows no love to freeloaders in his household, taking it upon himself to evict Billy's brother Russ, AKA "Russ the Rhino", with a masseuse matron, and later evicting an entire wedding crowd after being forced to cater to them when they get held in his house for several days in connection with a murder investigation.
    • One of the judges in court (Judge Claggett) hates swearing and gets mad when Matlock lets profanity fly under his watch.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Julie March is as cute as a button, perky as a poodle, and sweet as strawberries. But Ben regards her as the most ruthless prosecutor there is in the DA's office. And he's right.
  • Busman's Holiday: To the point where Matlock may be described as a Mystery Magnet.
    • Matlock as a Rogue Juror in the episode "The Juror," reminiscent of the movie 12 Angry Men.
    • Virtually any time Matlock goes on vacation. Matlock goes to his home town to attend a family reunion? Matlock ends up defending an accused murderer in court. Matlock goes on vacation at an Oceanside resort. Matlock ends up defending an accused murderer in court.
    • In "The View," Matlock and Leanne attend an out-of-town wedding. Ben witnesses a murder from his hotel room, but because of conflict-of-interest, Leanne winds up representing the accused murderer.
    • In "The Murder Game," Matlock, Leanne, and Cliff take part in a murder mystery weekend — where a real murder takes place.
  • Butt-Monkey: For a former Army lieutenant, Tyler Hudson gets his ass kicked routinely on the job. Conrad, who takes his place, falls into this category far less often — he's harder to get the drop on, having been a former policeman.
  • Calculator Spelling: In one episode, a guy murdered at a TV station cues up a tape to a place that shows Matlock's client. Matlock eventually realizes that the LED counter reads 337, reading upside down as 'Lee', the name of the real killer.
  • Captain Obvious: In one episode, Ben tries to use The Perry Mason Method to get a witness for the prosecution who really is the killer to confess. The witness turns out to have what at least looks like an airtight alibi. As Matlock leaves the courtroom, a reporter shouts at him, desperately trying to get a soundbite before Matlock's elevator door closes.
    Reporter: How does it feel to make a fool of yourself, Mr. Matlock?
    Matlock: Lousy!
  • Christmas Episode: Three yuletide-themed episodes occur: "Santa Claus", "The Gift", and "The Scrooge".
  • Celebrity Paradox: Randy Travis played a house painter and eventual client. Later, a client who represented a country singer is shown to be acquainted with the real Randy Travis.
  • Clear My Name:
    • In the episode "The People Vs. Matlock", Ben is accused of bribing a witness.
    • In the two-part episode "Nowhere to Turn", Ben is accused of murdering a judge. On top of that, he's in L.A., not his native Atlanta, where he really has nobody to help him.
  • Clip Show: Several examples, some used creatively.
    • In the Season 3 episode "The Vendetta," Michelle, Julie, and Tyler are held at gunpoint by the brother of a man who died in prison after Ben Matlock proved he was the murderer in an earlier trial. The three testify to Ben's integrity and honor by recalling his old cases.
    • In the Season 4 episode "The Kidnapper," Ben is abducted and his sidekicks have to recap old cases he solved to figure out who wants revenge on him the most.
  • Cool Old Guy: As a elderly and giftedly accomplished defense attorney who has loads of endearing quirks, Matlock definitely qualifies. His aged and irritating neighbors Les Calhoun (played by Don Knotts) and Billy Lewis (played by Warren Frost) are the antithesis of this trope, though, being respectively clueless and mean-spirited characters who cause Matlock no end of trouble.
  • Court-martialed: In the two part episode "The Court Martial," Ben is appointed the defense attorney for a soldier undergoing a court-martial. He has to be repeatedly reminded to call the judge "Sir," not "your honor."
  • Cowboy Episode: "The Nightmare", in which the show's title character gets knocked out and finds himself in a Wild West setting.
  • Cringe Comedy: The entirety of "The Divorce", which features two irritatingly stuck-up yuppies who are overly upbeat but finally come unraveled while airing their hidden grievances towards each other. They spend the rest of the episode making their insurance adjusters soil themselves as they engage in loads of property-destructive Tantrum Throwing. Worse yet, the crime of the week isn't even a murder — rather, just an Excuse Plot to get Ben in the courtroom because somebody is suing him over slipping on his porch steps. It turns out the plaintiff, (who happened to be out seeking donations), is actually a Con Artist.
  • Crossover: Matlock once defended Dr. Jesse Travis from a murder charge in Diagnosis: Murder. Given that the latter also crossed over with Mannix, one could say that the worlds of Ben Matlock and Joe Mannix are transitively connected to one another.
  • Crusading Widow: "The Captain", an episode that has the killer revealed in the opening act, is about rogue cop Edward Hanna, who is angry about the murder of his wife and takes it out on alley-dwellers.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • In the pilot and a few first season episodes, Matlock's house is shown to be in the country (rather than in town as it is in later seasons). Moreover, Matlock has a hen-house and is a few times seen collecting eggs.
    • The pilot movie gave Ben Matlock a secretary named Hazel and had Lori Lethin cast as Charlene Matlock. Hazel was only seen in the pilot, while Charlene would be played by Linda Purl for the first season before the character would be written off via starting her own law practice in Philadelphia.
  • Establishing Shot: Episodes often start by showing the Downtown Atlanta skyline, particularly highlighting the cylindrical Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Atlanta's tallest building at the start of the series.
  • Fish out of Water: Happens anytime Ben has to travel very far out of Atlanta to defend someone. An especially notable example occurs while he is defending a client in Britain. Matlock is unable to bring himself to wear the barrister's wig and gown and finds it difficult to use British court vernacular, which is more formal than the loose way of speaking in American courtrooms.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: On Ben's side, once. He got hit by a car when his mind was on a tough case. He started out hating his nurse, but when she cured his headache, making him feel better and giving him the episode's epiphany, he changed his mind.
  • Friendly Enemy: Played with regarding Ben and D.A. Julie Marsh. They're not actual enemies (they're dating, in fact), just arguing opposite sides of their cases.
  • Gilligan Cut: Matlock, about to go on a fishing trip, gets a letter calling him in for jury duty. He remarks that as a prominent defense attorney, there's a snowball's chance in hell he'll be selected. Cut to Matlock sitting in the jury box. An example of Artistic License Law, as in most of the United States and all Canadian provinces lawyers are ineligible for jury duty.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Obligatory for the genre, but subverted twice.
    • In the Season 2 episode "The Best Friend", Matlock discovers his client is guilty. He gets her to confess in court to end an Accuse the Witness situation against someone she cared for.
    • In the Season 8 episode "The Defendant," Leanne defends a philanthropist accused of murdering his wife, falling for him in the process. He is acquitted, but it turns out he's guilty and flees the country.
  • Held Back in School: In "The Court Martial", Matlock confides that he repeated the third grade as a way of saying that sometimes success doesn't come easy.
  • Honest John's Dealership: The episode "The Lemon" is about the murder of a guy who works at a used car dealership.
  • Intimate Lotion Application: In "Dead Air", when Ben visits the house of one of the suspects, he finds her sunbathing in a bikini, and she tries to distract him from speaking about the case by asking him to rub suntan lotion on her back and legs. He's visibly uncomfortable during the whole exchange but manages to apply the lotion while keeping the conversation on track.
  • Irony: When Matlock defends a client in a different court than his home turf in the season 4 opener, the judge is as no-nonsense as they come and absolutely hates the way Matlock turns the courtroom into his own personal little circus. That judge ends up moving to Atlanta much later in the show and becomes the one judge who simply refuses to let Matlock carry on the way he usually does.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Ben is a graduate of Harvard University.
  • Joker Jury: In one episode Matlock is called upon to act as defense counsel for a prison guard being tried for murder by rioting prisoners.
  • Jury and Witness Tampering: Subverted in one episode. Matlock interviews a potential witness and gets her story, then calls her to the witness stand to repeat it in front of the jury — where she tells a completely different story. Ben thinks that she's been tampered with, but according to her this is the real story and she had been tampered with before when she had talked to him previously (and she wasn't under oath then).
  • Just One Little Mistake: Ben loves pulling this trick on suspects he knows he's got beat by making it appear as if he hasn't got a thing on them to convict them of their crimes, luring them into a false sense of security. Ultimately, he reveals that he has all the evidence necessary to incriminate them. One time, Ben actually goes out of his way to explain that one must be incredibly careful in planning out a murder because the tiniest mistake will trip up the culprit.
  • Killed Off for Real: In a shocking and heartbreaking turn of events, the final season sees one of the recurring cast get murdered. Lieutenant Bob Brooks, a close friend of Ben's who also serves as his contact on the Atlanta Police Department, is stabbed to death by someone seeking revenge on Matlock and attempting to see if they can pull off the perfect crime.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Lampshaded in an episode when the store where Ben buys all his identical light grey suits is shutting down, and he must defend his favorite salesman on a related murder charge. Matlock wears a different suit, but he finds it to be unbearably itchy, causing the presiding judge to think something is wrong with him. Ben finally switches back to the old one.
  • Missing Mom: Like Andy Taylor, Matlock is a widower, and the subject of remarrying bothers him. We hear next to nothing about his late wife, (not even a name), except a minimal amount of information from Charlene. She says she lost her mother when she was young, during a case where someone was driven to murder because their own mother had been removed from their life.
  • Mood Whiplash: The often rather disturbing murder trials were usually offset by featherweight B-story lines. One Egregious example had Matlock wrap up a case early in the show's running time so that the last five minutes of the show could feature an upbeat bluegrass band.
  • Morton's Fork: In "The Thoroughbred," Matlock defends a mentally disabled client named Tommy after his employer Sandra is found murdered. Tommy's stunted mental state unfortunately causes Ben to wonder if Tommy can even understand what's happening. To make matters worse, Tommy is hysterical after what happened and acts highly erratic. Matlock tries to explain it to him in the simplest terms, suggesting Tommy consider a diminished capacity plea (that he was unaware of what he was doing and could have killed Sandra by accident). When nothing Ben says registers with Tommy, the lawyer lets out an exasperated, "Oh, Lord...."
  • Mystery Magnet: Matlock seems to run into mysteries and murders on a regular basis, independent of his practice of law.
    • Virtually any time Matlock goes on vacation. Matlock goes to his home town to attend a family reunion? Matlock ends up defending an accused murderer in court. Matlock goes on vacation at an Oceanside resort? Matlock ends up defending an accused murderer in court. This happens twice.
    • Another time, Matlock attends a wedding. He witnesses a murder from his hotel room. Because of his obvious conflict-of-interest, Leanne represents the accused murderer.
    • Matlock gives a talk to a group of undergraduates in a law club. One of them is murdered immediately thereafter.
    • Matlock conducts his church choir. A member of the choir is murdered, another is wrongly accused.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: It was widely reported during the show's run that Matlock was based on well-known Georgia defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook, though the show-runners denied it. Andy Griffith said he modeled his performance on Senator Sam Ervin of Watergate fame, who like Griffith hailed from North Carolina. Texas defense attorney Percy Foreman was also cited as an inspiration.
  • Not Helping Your Case:
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: This is often the way Matlock finds the truth.
  • Paranormal Episode: "The Ghost" sees the ghost of a murder victim ask Matlock to defend his widow from murder charges and find his real killer.
  • The Perry Mason Method: You'll find Matlock regularly engaging in courtroom antics, trying to erode the credibility of a witness so he can ambush them.
  • Protagonist Title: The show is titled after the main character's surname.
  • Put on a Bus:
    • Tyler Hudson after Season 3 due to Kene Holliday becoming increasingly late to work and having to go to rehab due to drug and alcohol problems. Likewise, Tyler's replacement, Conrad McMasters, after Season 7 when his actor, Clarence Gilyard Jr, left to play James Trivette on Walker, Texas Ranger.
    • Charlene meets someone and goes off to Philadelphia to start her own firm after Season 1, already in the process of leaving before the season ends.
    • Julie moves away to a new job after Season 6, but shows up one last time in the final season to close all loose threads with her character.
    • Leanne finally meets someone worth loving during the interim between Seasons 8 and 9 and takes a job in Los Angeles.
  • Running Gag: A two-parter features Tyler embroiled in an investigation with a criminal baroness. Every time he goes into the bar that serves as her hideout, he makes a total ass of himself and gets physically thrown into the back room, where she awaits him.
  • The Scrooge:
    • Matlock is a cheapskate. At first, it was out of necessity after some bad investments but, by the time he became wealthy again, he remained thrifty. In a crossover with Diagnosis: Murder, Matlock revealed that on Dr. Sloan's advice, he once invested heavily in companies that manufactured 8-track tapes, which nearly wiped him out.
    • One of the Christmas episodes is titled "The Scrooge".
  • Show, Don't Tell: Matlock has a habit of speculating in nearly all of his cases rather than presenting the quantifiable evidence right off the bat. It sometimes results in the prosecutors taking him apart for lack of relevancy.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • To The Andy Griffith Show. This show suggests what would have happened if Sheriff Andy Taylor decided to leave Mayberry and move onto bigger and better things.
    • Arguably, to Perry Mason as well.
  • Storybook Episode:
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Michelle Thomas for Charlene Matlock, then Leanne Matlock for both of them. Averted, however, with Conrad McMasters replacing Tyler Hudson, despite fulfilling the same job, as both men had very drastically different personalities. While Tyler was a stocktrader by profession and carried himself with something of an aristocratic air, Conrad was a former sheriff's deputy and thus demonstrated more of a blue-collar, working man attitude.
  • Terminally-Ill Criminal: In "The Dare," wealthy philanthropist Malcolm Engle has a grudge against Matlock for not getting his son off on a murder charge many years prior. He spitefully kills the lawyer's detective friend, challenging Matlock beforehand to prove it. Matlock in fact does so during trial, and in the process reveals that Engle is terminally ill. Engle admits to this on the witness stand, cynically pointing out that convicting him to life in prison will be pointless given that he only has six months to live.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: One case sees Tyler get involved with a bunch of "lethal-looking men". However, he discovered that they love to play cards and gamble. Tyler subsequently cleans their clocks to the tune of 20,000 dollars.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Ben adores hot dogs. It goes as far back as his first case as a defense lawyer, when his dad was still around to make them for him. Sister series Diagnosis: Murder reveals Ben developed his trademark adherence to them as well as his fondness for plain grey suits while strapped for cash in his youth, having lost nearly his entire life savings while investing in 8-track cartridges on Dr. Mark Sloan's advice, and by the time he came back into money again, they had simply become habits.
  • Tranquil Fury:
    • If you stab Matlock in the back, he will show you no mercy. He'll turn right around and show you just how he ruthless he can be.
    • There was one instance where Matlock discovered his own client really was guilty all along, and immediately poured holy hell down on her for acting like she could get away with murder on his dime. Instead of squeezing the truth out of her on the stand, Matlock went for the throat. He decided to incriminate her best friend as the murderer on the stand in a Batman Gambit, causing her to come clean and change her plea to guilty.
    • "Nowhere to Turn", which is a Trauma Conga Line for poor Ben, opens with one of his client's friends testifying on his behalf. Ben, however, doesn't know she was put up to this, and then watches his defense evaporate when she pulls a totally asinine song-and-dance of lies on the witness stand. Knowing the damage is irreparable, Matlock is furious, ready to walk out on his client and let the jury convict him.
      Ben: (sounding like he's ready to wash his hands of the creep) You're dead. ... You're dead. ... You're DEAD, AND I HATE YOU.
  • The Unreveal:
    • In a typical Matlock episode, the killer is The Unseen and exposed in the final act of the story. However, a few episodes of the show (starting with "The Judge") introduce the killer right off the bat without trying to hide their identity. This is sometimes done to showcase either the murderer's total lack of humanity or to demonstrate the lengths they'll go to avoid being caught — and for the very worst offenders, both. Want an example of how this works to the benefit of the drama? "The Sisters" was only the second instance where this took place, and that time, the killers murdered someone just for For the Evulz.
    • Another such story had a woman murdering her married lover when he cruelly breaks things off with her. It was an act of passion, and she didn't mean to kill him. The first thing she does is tearfully confess it to her mother, who takes matters into her own hands, all to protect her daughter. She goes to the scene of the crime within an hour of it being committed, and is caught by the police, ending up with Matlock defending her. Like most of his clients, she is innocent, but has a vested interest in protecting the real killer. She initially enters a plea of Not Guilty, hoping to leave the case unsolved, but when Ben closes in on her daughter's guilt, she tries to change her plea to guilty mid-trial, and it becomes obvious what she was trying to do.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Professional, soft-spoken Assistant DA Julie March. Just because someone can send your client to death row doesn't mean you can't be good friends!
    • Lampshaded in an episode where Matlock invites Julie to stay at his house while she's temporarily homeless. She has to leave before the end of that week's case because things get too awkward.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: Instead of three spirits, Michelle takes a slumlord to several different apartments to show him the different stages of squalor his tenants live in. The last apartment was dark. When the slumlord fumbles for the light switch and turns it on, he finds Matlock sitting in the living room chair. Having heard him fumble for the light switch, Ben knew the landlord had never been in the apartment before and could not be the killer. One of Matlock's more clever moments.
  • Zeerust: All those vintage 1980s computers and printers in the office scenes are quaintly obsolete compared to today's examples.