I wish I could tell you that Bryan Cranston spends the entirety of the 1987 Matlock episode “The Gift” sitting in a courtroom in a Santa costume. Unfortunately, I can not. In fact, I can’t even tell you he has a significant amount of screen time in the episode, as his character, Brian Emerson, really just shows up at the beginning to get framed for the murder of his ex-wife and again at the end when Matlock proves his innocence with the help of a tiny yapping dog named Toto. (We will get to this, I promise.) He spends most of the episode in jail while Matlock and his team run around trying to figure out who really committed the crime. But I have a longstanding policy of covering any episode of television in which Bryan Cranston get accused of murder while dressed like Santa Claus, so here we are. My hands are tied.
Presented below, the five things you need to know about this little Christmas miracle.
1) This is actually the first of Bryan Cranston’s two appearances on Matlock. He also popped up in 1991 as a sleazy marriage counselor named Dr. Harding Fletcher who gets murdered in his office after sleeping with the wife of a patient. And he has three Murder, She Wrote guest spots, a Rockford Files, and a Walker, Texas Ranger on his resume, too, in addition to the thing we discussed last year where he and his Breaking Bad co-star Dean Norris both showed up in the first episode of Pamela Anderson’s syndicated bodyguard series, V.I.P. Bryan Cranston is the greatest.
2) The plot of this episode is like something out of a men’s rights activist’s nightmare. Cranston’s character is accused of killing his ex-wife, Maggie, during her big Santa-themed Christmas party in her mansion, which he had to sneak into in costume to give their daughter a present, because his ex-wife got a restraining order against him for no reason at all after their nasty divorce, which she demanded after he practically bankrupted himself to put her through medical school and she left him for her new partner in her plastic surgery practice. Take a second to unpack all that. (She later left the doctor for a handsome restauranteur named Peter Bono, with whom she was living at the time of her death. Will this come up again at some point? MAYBE.)
Anyway, the ex catches him giving the gift to the daughter and runs off to call the police to report him for violating the restraining order, and while she’s on the phone with the 911 operator a man in a Santa costume walks in and kills her with a metal vase. Then, after the real killer slipped out, Cranston walks in to try to explain himself, and a bunch of other Santas walk in to investigate the commotion as he’s standing there holding the vase over her lifeless body. Aaaaaaaaaand arrested.
3) Around the midpoint of the episode, after Matlock has temporarily taken custody of Cranston’s character’s precocious, adorable daughter — standard practice in a murder trial — and his investigator has taught her how to pick locks, Matlock and the prosecutor meet at the courthouse snack bar and he offers to buy her, in order, a hot dog, a doughnut, some peanut brittle, and some licorice, all while absolutely loading up a hot dog with almost every fixing the snack bar has to offer. Matlock is everyone’s grandfather.
4) Okay, so remember the thing I mentioned up front about the dog? This is the best part. During his investigation leading up to the trial, Matlock notices that Toto, Peter Bono’s dog, barks and snaps at everyone except his owner. So Matlock gets Peter on the stand and, after introducing evidence that shows Maggie was no longer going to bankroll the restaurant they were opening, plays the tape of the 911 call, which supposedly implicates his client because Maggie screamed “Brian, what are you doing? Put that down. What are you doing? HE’S GONNA KILL ME!” But, Matlock points out, it’s not about what’s on the tape. It’s about what’s NOT on the tape: the barking. If there was no barking by Toto, who was supposedly in the bedroom, then it had to have been Peter who was there at the time of the 911 call. Ergo, Peter must be the murderer. The prosecutor agrees and moves for an immediate dismissal.
THE PROSECUTOR AGREES AND MOVES FOR AN IMMEDIATE DISMISSAL.
Based on a tape in which a dog — who we are just accepting was in the room at the time, even though there’s no actual evidence of his presence — didn’t bark at its owner, who was dressed as Santa Clause in a house filled with people dressed as Santa Claus. In spite of the fact that they had an eyewitness identification FROM A HUMAN during the call. They didn’t even take it to the jury, “Well, the lady said her ex-husband killed her, and he had a strong motive.” “Good point. Lemme just check with this dog real quick.”
My point is that Matlock and Frankin & Bash have more in common than you probably think. Anyway, case dismissed, God bless us every one, happily ever after, etc. etc. etc.
5) One more note, though. The timeline in this episode is a little unclear, but we do know that the whole thing takes place between the ex-wife’s Christmas party and Matlock’s, which is an awful short amount of time to squeeze in a whole murder trial. Whatever. A dog was the star witness. Let’s not nitpick. The only reason I bring it up is because it means Matlock’s investigator might have superhuman healing powers. Let me explain.
The investigator, Tyler Hudson, is trying to question another suspect who might have a motive. After the suspect tries to sneak out the back and Tyler gives chase, the suspect bonks him in the head with something to knock him out. This is Tyler after that happened, while having tea with the suspect (because why not?), who turned out to have an alibi. Take note of the bandage.
And this is Tyler in literally the very next scene, questioning Maggie’s partner in the plastic surgery practice.
And this is Tyler at Matlock’s Christmas party, maybe 3-4 days later, max.
My working theory is that he’s Wolverine. And that we should all be watching more Matlock. So two theories, really.