Perry Mason Episode 1 Review: Chapter One

Matthew Rhys goes for the sleaze in the origin story reboot of Perry Mason.

Perry Mason Episode 1
Photo: WarnerMedia

This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.

Perry Mason Episode 1

Perry Mason, episode 1, “Chapter One,” opens with a furtive violin overtaking cheerful jazz trumpets as a man walks through the darkness cradling what looks like a baby as he approaches the Angels Flight Railway entrance. It is sad. It is somber. It is somehow unsettling as an opening image and reminiscent of Angel Heart in its dread-filled ambiance. The entire opening sequence is fraught with tension, which builds incrementally until the payoff establishes the crime and frustrates the victims.

The first thing you might notice about Perry Mason is there is no theme song. The original series, which ran in the fifties and sixties and starred Raymond Burr, had an iconic theme song with a hummable melody and an aura of hope amidst impending doom in the halls of justice. HBO‘s Perry Mason has doom, it opens in the gloom of it, and then wades knee deep in it. It would have benefited from a resurrection of Fred Steiner’s orchestral swing.

Matthew Rhys’s Perry Mason is so hard boiled he picks out his ties at the mortuary. When we first see him he’s working a pretty sleazy case. He’s a picture-snatcher snapping a movie comedian to prove he’s breaking a morals clause. It makes Mason seem like he’s on his way to becoming some kind of ambulance chasing mouthpiece, because we know he has to turn into a lawyer at some point over the series. It is in the DNA. Anything else would be a bait and switch, which is okay for a kidnapping premise, but not for a courtroom drama.

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Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez), the actor Mason and his partner, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), are tailing appears to be based on Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Fatty was hounded to death by yellow journalists after the death of Virginia Rappe. While there was no medical evidence of rape, one rumor after another piled up to convict Arbuckle in the public eye. His three trials were among the biggest news sensations of the 1920s, and when he was finally found not guilty after the last one, the jury ruled he was owed much more than a measly acquittal. The sting on Chubby is tawdry and tasteless, even though it gives a new spin to dine-out, and features a full-frontal nude foot race which highlights an impressively balanced ratio of anatomical dimensions. It surely will lead to high profile coverage. In Los Angeles in 1931, Perry Mason is about to work another crime of the decade.

Perry’s mentor, the esteemed attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), hires the private investigator to probe the “kidnapping gone wrong” case of Charlie Dodson. The one-year-old was the bundle in the opening scene and his parents Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson were the couple who left the $100,000 ransom money in the abandoned suitcase. E.B. got the case from Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), a millionaire benefactor at the church the Dodsons attend. We also meet Della Street (Juliet Rylance), who is E.B.’s long-suffering legal secretary.

Mason is divorced and has a kid who likes fire trucks. He comes across as a sad sack, especially when compared with Strickland who has a wisecrack for every occasion. Perry was brought up on a farm outside Los Angeles, which makes him immune to jokes about getting kicked by cows, and he needs a password to sleep in his family home. The password is always in Spanish because the entire area used to be.

The Carmichael photos also capture Hammersmith Picture’s newest ingénue ladling on the cream and Mason tries to milk it in the episode’s blackmail attempt gone horribly wrong. A crooked private dick needs a strong arm to pry cash from Tinseltown brass, and Mason doesn’t really have that kind of balls. It is a bit of an understatement to say he gets burned on that deal. When he tries to earn extra scratch as a material witness at a trial, the bench also becomes a hot seat and we learn Mason received a “blue discharge for conduct unbecoming,” during World War I. We learn a little later he survived the battle of the Argonne, which went on for a relentless 47 days. It affects how he holds his cigarettes when he smokes and his jaded relationship with life and all things material.

Mason similarly loses out on cash when the main detective on the Dodson case offers him five bucks for information on the killer. Mason turns it down and in the very next scene he has to dole out four dollars to bribe his way into a photo session with the dead child. This is also the scene where we see the tough investigator pause and almost avert his private eyes. Jefferson Mays who played George Hodell, who may very well have been the Black Dahlia killer, in I Am the Night, is Mason’s buddy at the mortuary. In a bit of foreshadowing, the coroner shows Mason the aftermath of the “kidnapping gone way wrong.” It’s the “worst thing you’ve ever seen,” he says before un-shrouding the body of the baby who was kidnapped at the beginning of the episode. “How do you know what I’ve seen,” Mason asks, cementing his film noir era nihilistic creds.

“So many windmills, so little time,” Della chides Mason at one point. She sees through everything, from E.B.’s shortcutting the law to the tilt of Mason’s arc of non-involvement. When he does get involved, though, he tilts far enough to crash a pinball machine. Mason and Lupe’s (Veronica Falcón) sex scene could almost be called acrobatic if it wasn’t so obvious how badly they’d need a net. It’s actually more slapstick than sexy, but it does provide a metaphor on how Mason is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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The hardened dick does have a soft spot. Mason cares, and Rhys doesn’t care who sees it. He plays up the vulnerabilities through his eyes. Perry Mason’s eyes miss nothing, and neither does his camera, which acts as another pair of peepers. He takes in the emotional aura in a room, its old photographs, the open wounds of an empty crib. Rhys allows us to see him process everything, even though he is a quick study and apparently inscrutable to everyone but E.B., Della and Strickland. Everyone else only thinks they see him because he comes across as scruffily obvious. Only the audience knows he’s got more going on, but has to chew too much grit to get to the meat.

Written by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, and directed by Boardwalk Empire‘s Tim Van Patten, “Chapter One” is more pulp novel than law book. Although it is set in sunny L.A., it is shot in dark blues and greys, with plenty of splotches of red. There is quite a bit of violence in the episode, and at least one bit of overkill, a man who is dying from a neck wound gets his throat crushed to make it official. But the post-mortem close-up of the Dodson kids is positively grim. The original Perry Mason series had episodic titles like “The Case of the Runaway Corpse,” and “The Case of the Deadly Double.” This might be called “The Case of the Dead Kid with the Sewn Up Eyes” because it takes a while for that scene to fade from the mind’s eye. Perry Mason opens and shuts its opening in a dark corner.

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3.5 out of 5