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Matlock is a folksy Southerner with a moral code from before The Sixties 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 in 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 ready to drop the case.)
Structurally, this series is very like Perry Mason. Ironically, Matlock's creator, Dean Hargrove, and his production partner, Fred Silverman (the same man who, at various times, worked as a programming chief for all three major television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC) produced a string of Perry Mason made-for-TV movies around the same time. But there is a big difference between Mason and Matlock. Perry Mason (based in Los Angeles) is always intense and menacing by nature; Matlock is old-fashioned, folksy and grandfatherly, which actually makes it scarier when he gets into haranguing Courtroom Antic mode.
The series contains examples of:
- Asshole Victim: Happened more often than not, whether it was a mobster, blackmailer, or just a jerkass, they tended to be the victims. Not that that always happened, it was sometimes a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a guy that, due more to his position than his personality, simply had enemies.
- Black Best Friend: Tyler Hudson and younger but just as effective Conrad McMasters. Both investigators who did dangerous, athletic legwork in a show full of white lawyers who were much less athletic but still managed to walk into stupid situations.
- Busman's Holiday: Matlock as a Rogue Juror.
- Clip Show: Used rather creatively. Matlock has been kidnapped and his sidekicks have to recap old cases he solved to figure out who wants revenge on him the most.
- Cool Old Guy: Matlock.
- Cowboy Episode: "The Nightmare", in which the show's title character gets knocked out and finds himself in a Wild West setting.
- The Eighties
- Friendly Enemy: see Worthy Opponent. Partially averted in that they're not actual enemies, just arguing opposite sides of their cases.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Obligatory for the genre, but subverted in "The Best Friend", where his client was guilty. He got her to confess in court to end an Accuse the Witness situation against someone she cared for.
- Ivy League for Everyone
- Joker Jury: In one episode Matlock was called upon to act as defense counsel for a prison guard being tried for murder by rioting prisoners.
- Limited Wardrobe: Lampshaded by an episode where the store where he buys all his identical light grey suits is shutting down, and he must defend his favorite salesman on a related murder charge.
- Mood Whiplash: The disturbing Murder trials were often offset by rather cutesy 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.
- Name's the Same: The episode The Abduction gives us two mobsters with famous names. One named Robert Drake (who is also the real name of Iceman, one of the founding members of the superhero team, the X-Men) and one name Jay Cutler (the current Quarterback of the Denver Broncos).
- Obfuscating Stupidity: This is often the way Matlock finds the truth.
- Simple Country Lawyer: Matlock
- Shout-Out: This article's description alone revealed a ton of them, all to The Andy Griffith Show.
- Storybook Episode: Matlock is hit on the head and dreams he must solve a case Recycled In The Wild West.
- 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 on a show where Matlock invites her to stay at his house while she's temporarily homeless. She has to leave before the end of that week's case because it gets too awkward.
- Yet Another Christmas Carol: Instead of three spirits, Michelle took a slumlord to several different apartments to show him the different stages of squalor his tenants lived in. The last apartment was dark. When the slumlord fumbled for the light switch and turned it on he found Matlock sitting in the living room chair. Having heard him fumble for the light switch, Matlock knew the landlord had never been in the apartment before and could not be the killer. One of Matlock's more clever moments.