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Quibbling over necessity is a trap I periodically fall into as a critic. Did Archie Andrews and Norman Bates and that guy from Taken NEED gritty reboots and origin stories? Depending on whom you ask, the answers seem to be: “Young viewers think so,” “Actually yes” and “Heck no.”
Did Perry Mason NEED a gritty reboot and origin story?
AIR DATE Jun 21, 2020
After watching the eight-episode first season of HBO’s new Perry Mason, I still can’t deliver a clear verdict. With a strong lead performance by Matthew Rhys, an ensemble to die for and impeccable Depression era production values, the show makes a solid case for itself without ever exactly giving a compelling answer as to why, of all the available IP in the world, this was the brand anybody wanted to mine.
Originally a pugnacious defense attorney created on the page by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, the title character has since been adapted for the radio and made into an iconic TV series and telefilm role embodied by Raymond Burr. But Perry Mason has never really been a character. He’s never had a backstory or a home life. He’s a lawyer who wins cases by getting witness-stand confessions. So series creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald have a lot of latitude; other than offering some familiar character names and the occasional Easter egg, they run free.
Set in Los Angeles in 1931, the show posits Perry Mason (Rhys) as a hard-drinking private investigator living on his family’s dilapidated dairy farm in the San Fernando Valley. Haunted, but really for only one episode, by memories of his actions in the Great War, Perry performs shamus duties for defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). Perry, fellow PI Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) and Jonathan’s Gal Friday, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), are enlisted to poke around in a horrible kidnapping case involving a dead baby and suspicions levied against both parents (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin).
The gory crime, with the body discovered on L.A.’s famous Angels Flight funicular, captures headlines, especially when the Radiant Assembly of God evangelical church, overseen by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her stern mother Birdy (Lili Taylor), becomes involved.
Although he eventually begins to resemble the Perry Mason TV fans once loved, this Perry spends a long time as a quintessential hard-boiled gumshoe, tracing clues that almost inevitably put him in a position to be beaten senseless, only to keep going, bruised but emboldened by whiskey.
In these early episodes, the character is more reminiscent of a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe, both figures with far more literary definition than Perry Mason — raising the question of why, if the lure was just a marketable brand, this show wasn’t built around one of them. Or why, if Jones and Fitzgerald wanted to mine elements of early Los Angeles history and corrupt policing (a dirty officer killing a suspect by standing on his throat hits far closer to home than anybody could have anticipated), this wasn’t a chance for a James Ellroy omnibus series.
My favorite character in the show might be Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), depicted as a Black cop realizing that the disrespect directed at his community outweighs the respect generated by his badge. But everything I liked there could have been better served by bringing Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins to TV, rather than limiting exploration of racial dynamics to a C-storyline.
Perry Mason generally seems inspired by many different indelible characters and franchises, but until the last couple episodes, it barely feels like Perry Mason at all, whatever Perry Mason even feels like. So it just becomes a name, and that’s confusing since that name means nothing to a younger audience, while the deviations from formula here will irk (older) viewers for whom Barbara Hale is the only true Della Street.
Not having a clear sense of who or what Perry Mason and Perry Mason are gives the creators a less-than-convincing filter through which to view the aspects of L.A. history they’re obviously curious about — whether it’s land grabs tied to the 1932 Olympics, a burgeoning movie industry or the real story of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Consequently, the effectiveness of those elements in the season-spanning mystery is diminished, as is the brand’s effort to elevate itself from the effective procedural potboiler it once was to the prestige series HBO wants.
All that said, Perry Mason generally avoids feeling like an assembly line Cable Anti-Hero: Great Depression Edition. Much of the credit goes to Rhys, in a role once intended for Robert Downey Jr. A matryoshka doll of repression and discontent on The Americans, he alternates between a similar internalized torment and volcanic bursts of passion (which tend to bring out Rhys’ Welshness, not that anybody is likely to complain). Rhys parries well with a properly tough-as-nails Rylance as a proto-feminist Della, and has interesting chemistry with Veronica Falcón, offering a husky authenticity as an aviator who represents the show’s only acknowledgement of L.A.’s Latino culture.
Lithgow, Whigham and Stephen Root, as an ambitious district attorney, excel from behind wiry period mustaches, while Robert Patrick, as a shady businessman, and Eric Lange and Andrew Howard, as shady cops, lurk and smirk with menace. The show isn’t quite as generous when it comes to its female characters, though Maslany plays Sister Alice as properly inscrutable and Rankin, initially unrecognizable as Sheila the She-Wolf from GLOW, gives the series its vulnerable heart.
Directors Tim Van Patten, flexing muscles from his Boardwalk Empire tenure, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Mustang) nurture the performances, at the same time relishing eye-popping period tableaus. Whether it’s the way floodlights break around Maslany’s Jean Harlow-blonde locks, the threaded texture of Paul Drake’s peacoat or harrowing footage of Perry in the WWI trenches — surprisingly ambitious for sequences that amount to five minutes of screen time — cinematographer David Franco, production designer John Goldsmith and costume designer Emma Potter are all in top form. Enhancing the atmosphere is a brassy score by Terence Blanchard, almost good enough to make you not miss Fred Steiner’s legendary theme.
Maybe shades of that theme will play a role in future seasons if Perry Mason settles into something more Perry Mason-esque. With the origin story nobody needed out of the way, the elements are in place.
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Tatian Maslany, John Lithgow, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Stephen Root, Gayle Rankin, Nate Corddry, Veronica Falcón, Jefferson Mays, Lili Taylor, Andrew Howard, Eric Lange and Robert Patrick
Adapted By: Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, from the character created by Erle Stanley Gardner
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering June 21.
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