If you know Perry Mason at all, you likely know the character from the long-running late ’50s, early ’60s TV legal drama starring Raymond Burr as the famous lawyer who was known for getting suspects to blurt out confessions while on the witness stand. The roots of the character go back even further, from a series of novels starting in the 1930s to a radio serial that ran from the mid-1940s until the mid-’50s.
But HBO’s new pulpy, hard-boiled Perry Mason series wants you to forget about (most) of that. Instead, it sets out to be a gritty origin story – a prequel, even. Characters who exist in the Perry Mason canon all pop-up here, albeit in new forms. And then there’s Perry Mason himself, who starts the series off not as a savvy courtroom attorney, but rather a down-and-out private eye.
Since the new Perry Mason is happy to embrace cliches, Mason – as played by Matthew Rhys, an actor who excels at looking weary and rumpled – is your typical dime-store private dick. He drinks too much, he needs a shave, he’s not above throwing a punch, and he’s a sucker for a dame with a sad story. And oh yeah, he’s haunted by the nightmarish horrors witnessed in the trenches of World War I. None of this stuff is part of the Perry Mason canon, and indeed, HBO’s take on the character works best when it’s forging its own path.
Unfortunately, as the series progresses, Perry Mason begins to feel more and more like it’s running through a checklist, throwing a bone to the die-hard Perry Mason fans (are there any still out there?) who might be longing for something familiar. In the original TV series, lawyer Perry worked with his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake. Those characters appear here, too, but it takes some time for them to fall into their familiar roles.
As things start out, Della (Juliet Rylance, snappy and lively) works for fading lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow, doing a wonderful job balancing absurdity with melancholy). E.B. employs Perry as his personal private eye, and Perry spends a lot of time working with his partner/mentor, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham, an actor who seems born to dress in 1930s attire, and who also makes a great shaggy foil for Rhys). As for Paul Drake, the miniseries turns him into a Black beat cop, played phenomenally by Chris Chalk as a man who has the power of the law, in theory, but is constantly reminded that he’s a second-class citizen. “They won’t even let me cuff white people,” he bitterly says at one point. “Even a white murderer gets to look down on me.”
All of these characters are drawn together due to a kidnapping gone wrong. Baby Charlie Dodson is snatched from his bedroom, Lindbergh Baby-style, and turns up dead. The infant’s murder would be headline news to begin with, but interest is exacerbated when it’s revealed that Charlie’s parents, Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) are members of a buzzworthy church, lead by the charismatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who claims to be able to receive messages directly from God. Things get even more complicated when Emily is suspected of being in on the kidnapping.
This storyline is handsomely mounted, with Tim Van Patten‘s direction loaded with often stunning imagery – smoke cutting through dull beams of light; neon-lit crosses; shadowy late-night scenarios. It’s also surprisingly gory and ghoulish at times: when baby Charlie’s body is found, it’s revealed in shocking detail that his eyes have been stitched open; Perry is prone to hang around the rotting stiffs at city morgue (he even borrows a necktie off of one); while investigating a suspected suicide, Perry sticks his fingers into the blasted-out hole that once was the dead man’s face (with Van Patten’s camera getting in nice and tight to highlight all the pulverized flesh); and…well, you get the picture. It ain’t pretty.
The graphic nature of all this violence and brutality keeps Perry Mason dark and foreboding, which makes the second half of the season – where Mason finally becomes a lawyer in such a rushed, unlikely fashion that you just have to shrug your shoulders and accept it – a bit jarring. After all the down-and-out, hard-luck private eye stuff, the show suddenly becomes more light on its feet, loaded with jokes and quips, even taking the time to send up the “guilty suspect who confesses on the stand” scenario.
And what of Sister Alice? How does she figure into all of this? More often than not, the character feels as if she belongs in a completely different show. Maslany breathes plenty of fire into the part, and the scenes she shares with Gayle Rankin – who is heartbreaking here as the tragic mother of the dead infant – are often haunting. But more often than not, anytime the series cut to the storyline involving Sister Alice and her church, I longed for things to cut back to Perry Mason and his gang of misfit friends.
Perry Mason was originally billed as limited series, but HBO – as they are wont to do; they did the same thing with The Outsider – changed their tune and are now calling this a regular series. You can see why: by the time Perry Mason comes to a close, all the pieces are in place for a whole new season of Perry taking on cases as a hotshot lawyer. There’s ample room there to keep this gorgeous production, full of its lush 1930s costume and set design, trying fresh cases on into the future. If that happens, here’s hoping that now that all this set-up is out of the way, Perry Mason can start telling sturdier stories.
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