This Perry Mason review contains no spoilers and is based on all eight episodes.
Don’t expect weekly courtroom dramas on HBO‘s Perry Mason. The first eight episodes are more of an origin story than a reboot of the original classic book, radio, and television series. And don’t look for a clean, virtuous man of justice in a tailored suit either. Not only does Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason get his suits off the rack and his ties off corpses on a slab at the mortuary, he occasionally gets egg on them.
Perry Mason is set in Los Angeles in 1931. “While the rest of the country struggles through the Great Depression, this city is booming,” promises the advance press. “Oil! Olympic Games! Talking Pictures! Evangelical Fervor! And a child kidnapping gone very, very wrong.” The action starts with the closing of an assignment, catching a famous Fatty Arbuckle-type movie comedian with his pants down, but not in character, on camera. After getting proof of a morals clause violation, Mason gets a shoe upside his head as payment, from both ends as it turns out.
Perry Mason is a hard-boiled detective. The only time we see a crack in that shell-shocked armor is a slight pause before taking a photograph of a dead child for evidence. He doesn’t cry, though. His eyes don’t even mist. We know it affects him, but we also know he doesn’t let it get to him. Mason is now working for that child, whether anyone around the case knows it. He’s the only one who will find the killer. The cops can’t be trusted to do it. They have a vested interest in keeping the status quid pro quo. Mason’s got nothing to lose.
This is a big part of the early development. Perry Mason is down on his luck, at the bottom with nowhere to go but up. He gets places in his friend and investigative partner Pete Strickland’s (Shea Whigham) truck but, at best, he’s making lateral moves. Strickland is a wisecrack waiting to happen. In an early scene, he says E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), who sets Mason up with the high profile case at the center of the drama, thinks Strickland is a degenerate. The way Mason looks at him, you think he’s going to say, “and?” as if this is a foregone conclusion. But instead says E.B. thinks Strickland is also a great investigator. Of course, being an investigator and a degenerate are not mutually exclusive.
Perry’s mentor E.B. Jonathan is a little too teary eyed for a lawyer. They’re supposed to charge by the hour not give from the heart. They subsist on billable hours and E.B.’s three-piece suits and watch fobs don’t come cheap. He also has to be able to afford dues to the exclusive cube he and Stephen Root’s district attorney luxuriously drink at. The courtroom and squad-room scenes between Root and Lithgow are highlights. They play off each other in magnificently fun ways. Root’s eyes positively glow at times with how much fun he’s having in this part. Lithgow goes in a different direction, but is nonetheless captivating.
Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) was gifted with a voice and a “set of lungs that would turn Tarzan, himself, green with envy,” even if she says so herself, which she does. She’s also surrounded herself with a crew who are all too eager to serve, please and protect. The first time we see Alice, she is sermonizing to her parishioners. A sound man is ever at the ready to capture her dulcet tones, gripping a mic stand which follows her mouth and leaves her hands free to touch the faithful. Maslany is magnetic, witty, and entirely likable on stage, even as Alice denies her members a single nibble of the seven course meal being set at the devil’s table. It “feeds the body, but starves the soul.” She deplores the gambling on Santa Monica and the brothels on Broadway, but may partake in a few sinful deeds herself, possibly even blasphemous.
Sister Alice raises money on the radio and at gatherings at the Radiant Assembly of God temple. Lili Taylor plays Alice’s mother. At one point there is a Radiant Assembly of God Reformed Church offshoot which is for white, Christian traditions, and proves it by sewing up the eyes of baby dolls. Maslany’s over-the-top evangelist is based on Sister Molly Finnister, who was also featured on Penny Dreadful: City of Angeles in the guise of Sister Molly. There are quite a few similarities between the two shows. Both shows dealt with racism, corruption, and a creepy beyond belief crime scene. There is even a map of a town right outside Los Angeles on display. Most of the episodes were directed by Timothy Van Patten, whose Boardwalk Empire also took place in the Depression.
The child murder is the biggest case in the city. The kid’s name is Charlie Dodson, and at different points each of his parents Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) get accused. They had to pay a $100,000 ransom and they don’t have that much money, but they’re being staked by millionaire Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick). He goes to the same church as the Dodsons. E.B. takes the case, and his legal secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) does everything else, except answer the phone.
Perry Mason is set up like Law & Order. It establishes the crime, the kidnapping of a one-year-old child, and then goes through the investigation and the trial. The main difference is Perry Mason has to be both private dick and public defender. We know this going in because the premise of the Perry Mason franchise is a story of a defense lawyer. The only mystery is how long is he going to sit on his lazy ass before he picks up a law book? It’s offensive how he “masks his intelligence with cynicism and slothfulness,” Della says midway through the season.
The early episodes drip with jaded nihilism. The coroner shows Mason the aftermath of the “kidnapping gone wrong.” He tells the detective it is the “Worst thing you’ve ever seen. Mason wants to know “How do you know what I’ve seen?” Mason may not be his own worst enemy, but he’s not doing himself any favors either.
Perry Mason is really nothing like his uniquely recognizable predecessor. Raymond Burr played American fiction’s most legendary criminal defense lawyer for nine-seasons on CBS, and 26 TV movies. He had the power to break people on the stand, make them give themselves away or confess outright. In this Perry Mason prequel, Hamilton Burger warns Mason not to attempt breaking a witness down on the stand. He’s no Raymond Burr.
Burr’s Mason was all-American. The audience didn’t know what he did outside the office, and didn’t care. He flirted with Della Street (Barbara Hale) but nothing ever came of it. Perry has an on-again off-again steady fling who can screw him off a bed but not out of the family farm. Rhys’ Mason received a “blue discharge for conduct unbecoming,” during World War I, a classification reserved for undesirable servicemen like “homosexuals and negroes.” The new Perry Mason is a troubled hero, a scruffy troublemaker who “drinks too much,” and suffering PTSD from both the trenches and his divorce.
This series goes back to Erle Stanley Gardner’s book series. Gardner wrote around 80 Perry Mason stories. His Mason was a fighter who took a beating and waited for the right moment to knock a guy out with one punch. Rhys’ Mason tends to take too long and too many beatings. Even the chubby comedian kicks the shit out of him. Perry takes it out on older, balding public defenders and empty evidence boxes, though, so he does get his licks in.
The series is shot darkly but beautifully in film noir shadings. While it’s in color, it captures a black and white feel. A blown-off head in an early episode looks like a lurid photograph in an old newspaper crime story. Oh, and the show is violent, lovingly so, with extreme close-ups of dislodged teeth, broken skulls and greasy chest wounds. But the worst crime committed on Perry Mason is the theme song. Is there a theme song? I’ve watched eight episodes and nothing is stuck in my ears. The original series had a theme song, Fred Steiner’s “Park Avenue Beat.”
Perry Mason doesn’t break new ground, like the best of HBO’s shows. Perry Mason classic was smoothly contrived, while the new series is bumpily candid. We get full-frontal nudity in the first few minutes. Della Street is gay, but it comes across as more gratuitous than character-building. Everyone has a flask. Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is a young Black cop with a four-month-pregnant wife. He is barred from becoming a detective because he’s black. The only reason he’s here is to show one sympathetic cop in a sea of blue corruption. Just because this isn’t a police procedural doesn’t mean it doesn’t adhere to some old procedures. Both Burr’s Perry Mason and Rhys’ overcome police incompetence and malfeasance to free the wrongfully accused. But it’s nothing new. So did Jim Rockford, Philip Marlowe, Veronica Mars and John Shaft.
Perry Mason gets better as it goes. The first episode tries so hard to paint Perry Mason as an unlikely hero it is easy to give up on him. But like any dogged gumshoe, it ultimately comes up with the goods, along with some bads, and a couple of really uglies which make it worthwhile entertainment and occasionally surprisingly timely for a period piece. His turnaround scene is exciting, and energizes the rest of the run. When he breaks his first witness on a stand, you will stay for closing arguments.