HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ rejects classic formula in favor of edginess

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

HBO’s new attempt at reinforcing its eminence in the prestige drama field draws from the strangest of sources: Erle Stanley Gardner’s much-adapted, nearly 90-year-old legal drama franchise “Perry Mason.” Mason was one of the most represented characters of the 20th century, appearing in 80 Stanley novels between 1933 and 1973, six movies in the 1930s, a long-running radio show, the classic CBS television series starring Raymond Burr and 30 television films stretching into the mid-’90s.

The HBO show is unlike any of these previous iterations. The new “Perry Mason” does what so many franchises have since Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” revolutionized comic book movies — it “updates” recognizable intellectual property for the modern era by being needlessly dark and gritty.

Instead of a clean-cut criminal defense lawyer, the first episode finds a worn-down Mason (Matthew Rhys) working as a private detective. Plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in World War I, Mason lives in a ramshackle hut on his family’s failed dairy farm and works the most sordid jobs available in Depression-era Los Angeles alongside his partner, the disreputable Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham).

Mason is forced out of his squalor when washed-up lawyer and father figure E.B. Jonathan (a brilliant John Lithgow) hires him to investigate the highest profile case in LA. Mason must work against the sensationalized media, crazy evangelicals and the corrupt Los Angeles police as he looks into the botched kidnapping and gruesome murder of an infant.

Though it retains the same title, HBO’s new series treats the original character as an opportunity to subvert viewer expectations within the framework of hardboiled neo-noir. For the most part, revisions made by writers Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald add dimension to the characters. Paul Drake, for example, has historically been portrayed as an uninteresting white private eye. In the new “Perry Mason,” he is a Black beat cop played excellently by Chris Chalk, who must overcome racism both from civilians and within the LAPD. Furthermore, Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is no longer simply Mason’s loyal secretary; her character is fully fleshed out.

And yet, so little of the traditional Mason formula remains that viewers can’t help but wonder why his name was invoked at all. By the time Mason becomes a lawyer, the season is more than halfway over and the transition from rugged detective to righteous counselor, which should be the centerpiece, happens across a few quick scenes. 

Mason’s characteristic strategy in all his older iterations is grilling the key suspect on the witness stand until they make an open confession. HBO’s “Perry Mason” deliberately avoids this gimmick by dismissing it as unrealistic, but it offers no satisfying alternatives. Instead of developing a genuinely unique version of the character, Rhys’ Mason is defined as the negation of Burr’s. The writers get so lost in winking at the audience with “gotcha” moments that the plot thread of the murder case gets buried, except in brief scenes when it’s mined for misery porn.

In terms of pure craft, however, “Perry Mason” is a marvel. Directing duties for the eight-episode season are split between the incredibly capable duo of HBO veteran Tim Van Patten (“Game of Thrones,” “The Sopranos”) and indie filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Impeccable period cinematography creates a seamless window into the 1930s, with splendid recreations of historic LA locations such as Angels Flight.

Likewise, the acting is first rate. Whigham, Lithgow and Stephen Root, who plays the deliciously evil district attorney, chew the melodramatic scenery, contributing to a dramatic tension that invokes classic noirs. Rhys sometimes mistakes volume for intensity and raises his voice instead of burrowing into the complex emotional subtext of his dialogue, but the ensemble cast is nonetheless impressive throughout.

In all its subversion of expectations, however, HBO’s “Perry Mason” fails to be gripping. Ultimately, the entire first season is little more than a pilot, setting up the backstory for a hopefully more engaging, if traditional, second season.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].