How ‘Matlock’ Made Me an Optimist

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I’m an optimist. It feels odd to say so, because such a quality seems counterintuitive to being a good writer, or a good parent, or (let’s face it) a human being alive in the year 2015. But I’ve realized over the past few years that, although I do live in the kind of moment-to-moment fear and self-loathing that characterizes such identifiers, I generally operate under the assumption that, eventually, everything’s going to turn out fine. This is not the result of some sort of spiritual awakening, meditation technique, or years of therapy. No, I’m pretty sure it’s because I spent so much of my youth watching Matlock.

Love for that program is something I’m loathe to admit, seeing’s how I’m sneaking up on 40 and feeling the usual anxiety about milestone birthdays, and Matlock has (thanks to The Simpsons) become a kind of shorthand for “Show Beloved By The Very, Very Elderly.” It debuted on NBC in 1986, a year after creator Dean Hargrove and producer Fred Silverman brought success to the network by resurrecting Perry Mason for a series of TV movies. Matlock was basically a Southern-fried Mason, with good ol’ Andy Griffith cast in the role of Benjamin Leighton Matlock, a peerless Atlanta defense attorney; the character debuted that spring in a TV movie called “Diary of a Perfect Murder” that served as a pilot for the series, which began the following fall and ran for nine seasons (nearly 200 episodes) on two networks.

I was 11 years old when it hit the air, and it’s still hard to pinpoint exactly why I started watching it. Don’t get me wrong: I was a weird kid, obsessed with old comedies (I dressed as two consecutive Marx brothers for two consecutive Halloweens, at age eight and nine, so obviously I was super-popular), and I watched a lot of television, but neither of those explanations quite explains what on earth a pre-teen would find so fascinating about a courtroom mystery drama whose target demo was mostly people my grandparents’ age. (In fact, my grandparents were the only people I knew who also watched the show.)

The most likely explanation I can come up with, from this vantage point, is that I also spent a fair amount of my youth reading Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. If you didn’t have the pleasure, these were slender paperbacks for pre-teens, ten or so short stories in which our hero, a boy detective and son of the local police chief, solves mysteries large and small. The format of each story ended with Encyclopedia announcing the solution, followed by a question to the reader (“How did Encyclopedia know?”; “What was Bugs Meany’s mistake?”; “Who is the Yellow King?” — that kinda thing), who then has to flip to the back of the book to read the solution to the mystery.

I devoured those books, even though I’ve never been very good at puzzling out a mystery and rarely figured out the mystery before looking in the back in the book. But I still remember, with pride, the first Encyclopedia Brown puzzle that I solved on my own — it was “The Case of the Civil War Sword,” which I’m delighted to discover is classified by Topless Robot as one of the “ten most ridiculously difficult Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.” (In short: Brown realizes a sword is a fake because it’s inscribed to Stonewall Jackson following “the first Battle of Bull Run,” but how could they have known then that there’d be a second Battle of Bull Run, hmmmm?)

The fact that I can still remember the hyper-specific details of this third-grade achievement and not, y’know, actual major life events probably says something I don’t wanna hear about my sense of priorities; ditto, the fact that I also still remember the solution of the mystery on that pilot movie of Matlock, the first episode I ever watched. (Ben rolled out three TVs showing footage of the comings and goings of the real killer, whose crime was given away by an errant name tag.) And, much to my pleasure, I figured that one out before Matlock revealed it as well, which may be why I kept watching the show. It was Encyclopedia Brown for grown-ups.

Eventually, of course, I stopped watching Matlock — and most other television, really, as most teenagers do when homework gets more difficult and part-time jobs start happening and transportation becomes available and extracurriculars become important and there’s even occasionally a date or two. And I sort of forgot about that show, aside from the occasional Simpsons/Arrested Development/Better Call Saul reference, until I had the chance to review a new DVD set of “Matlock’s Greatest Cases,” and watched the show for the first time in decades.

First of all, the title is a touch ridiculous; it’s not like even the show’s fans (those of us who are still living, that is) have some sort of go-to list of touchstone episodes. There is no “College” or “The Suitcase” or “Ozymandias” for Matlock, because every episode is basically the same. A crime (usually a murder) is committed; folksy, penny-pinching Ben Matlock is brought on the case; he puzzles out the mystery, with the help of that season’s pretty young partner/daughter-ish figure and streetwise investigator; he mouths backwoods bromides like, “Sorry don’t feed the bulldog,”; and once in the courtroom, he genially butts heads with the prosecutors (the Washington Generals to his one-man Globetrotters), stages elaborate demonstrations, prompts stern judge cutaways, poses sly suppositions, and makes witnesses squirm until one of them is proven to be the real murderer/thief/whatever.

The episode-to-episode variations are simple: who’s in the supporting cast (for the record, I’m partial to the original, Season 1 team of Griffith, Linda Purl, and Kene Holliday), who’s in the guest cast, both known and unknown (fun fact: Bryan Cranston appeared twice as two different characters: a suspect in Season 2 and a victim in Season 6 — the latter is in the “Greatest Cases” set), and, of course, the specifics of the mystery. And I must confess, though I approached this revisit to investigate misguided nostalgia, when I popped in the first episode — a Season 1 job called “The Judge,” with a sweaty, knife-wielding Dick Van Dyke knocking off his lover and then, coincidentally enough, sitting on the bench for the trial of the man wrongfully accused of his crime — I got sucked in. Sure, it’s a comically basic bit of television hackwork, full of stock dialogue and rote coverage and overacting day players. But these shows are undeniably satisfying, as good mysteries tend to be.

Maybe Matlock is just my comfort food, as Friends is for some and Law & Order iterations are for others. But I think what stuck with me after all those years of watching a formulaic courtroom mystery meant for viewers two generations (minimum) older than me was its simplicity. There’s something unfathomably clean and efficient about shows like this, where someone’s life is entirely upended by a false accusation, yet within an hour of screen time, they are saved and justice is done and everything turns out fine. Life doesn’t actually work out like that all too often, a lesson we’ve all had plenty of opportunities to learn. But the notion that such solutions are possible — that for all of our hand-wringing and brow-furrowing, things will eventually work themselves out — is the kind of naïve worldview that’s done my occasionally neurotic constitution more good than harm.