‘Perry Mason’ Review: HBO’s Violent, Horny Origin Story Didn’t Need to Be About Perry Mason

     June 18, 2020

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[Editor’s note: The following contains mild spoilers for Perry Mason.]

If you were hoping that HBO’s Perry Mason would simply be a remake of the classic 1950s-60s legal drama, I’m sorry to tell you that that is not the case. What we’ve got here is a bona fide prequel. Rather than seeing Matthew Rhys step into the shoes and tailored suits of the character made famous by the late Raymond Burr as an expert criminal defense attorney who seemingly never loses a case, we meet Rhys’ Perry Mason as a down-on-his-luck private eye. He’s a far cry from the celebrated lawyer known by generations of book readers and TV viewers, and, if reality were in play here, he’d be years away from achieving that milestone. Add some gratuitous sex, over-the-top violence, and drug use into the prequel series, and yeah, HBO’s got its signature stamp all over this thing for better or worse. The result is something that’s only briefly connected to what you know as Perry Mason, and something so bleak as to make it hard to recommend.

Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones have opted to go the “gritty origin story” route with Perry Mason. Not my first choice when it comes to rebooting a property after more than 50 years, but it’s not a bad idea in and of itself. The original TV series didn’t explore Mason’s life before his legal career much (except to mention that he was a Navy man stationed in the Pacific during WWII) and neither did the original books by Erle Stanley Gardner. There’s room to play here. So when this version of Perry Mason opts to give its title character a military background (this time in World War I, since the series takes place in the years just after the Great Depression), it’s to complicate and round out an otherwise squeaky clean character. The problem is, like much of the characterization in HBO’s Perry Mason, it doesn’t go anywhere significant, and it makes even less sense than Ozzy Osbourne‘s song by the same name. (You know I had to work this in somewhere.)

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Image via HBO

Again, the origin story isn’t exactly necessary here, but it’s not the problem either. Setting Perry Mason in post-Depression Los Angeles at the tail-end of 1931 gives the series plenty of chances to channel Steinbeck, Chinatown, and all the noir tropes you can shake a corrupt cop’s billy club at. It’s a wild time in the City of Angels, too. The 1932 Olympics are just around the corner, Hollywood is transitioning from the silent film era to the talking pictures, and crime is just as rampant as the cops (and lawyers, judges, and politicians) are crooked. There’s a lot to work with. Perry Mason doesn’t waste a bit of it, in a fitting Depression-era mindset, and even includes a raucous, rousing Evangelical group who’s stirring up local Angelenos. The setting is great; the period costuming, the rickety yet iconic vehicles, the dusty rural landscapes and crowded city streets — even the score is of a piece befitting the most recognizable mainstays of 1930s America. It’s just a shame that the cast, and the writing for their characters, are on a real rollercoaster of extremes throughout all eight episodes.

Rhys does quite well as the hangdog Perry Mason, a character cursed by drink, a failed marriage and broken home, a failing estate left behind by his late parents, a troubling history during his military service, and an inability to maintain any meaningful relationships. He’s pretty scummy, whether it’s taking covert pictures as a private eye or extorting his clients for more money (with diminishing returns), and he doesn’t treat his few close friends all that well either. In short, he’s a tough character to root for and an even harder one to like. That makes sense if you want to build a character up to the status of the renowned Perry Mason, but boy did this origin story try to start from underneath the bottom of the barrel. He plays the punching bag more often than not, whether in the streets or in the courtroom, eventually, so while Rhys does his best to even out the wildly up-and-down character, the writing ultimately holds him back.

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Image via HBO

Helping to prop Perry up between bouts of drinking, sexing, and peeping on marks are benefactor and veteran lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), his secretary / Girl Friday / associate Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and Perry’s own private investigator pal, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham). This quartet is fantastic when working together as they balance each other out and temper the wilder swings of some of the other cast members who really reach for that old-timey aesthetic and dialogue choices. (There are times when I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone swung onto screen just to say, “Watch out for that Adolf Hitler, he’s a bad egg!”) Whigham and Rylance are the rock-solid performers in this cast. Whigham brings a charisma and charm to the morally gray Strickland that few other actors could get away with, while Rylance’s Della Street — a core character from previous Perry Mason adaptations — does her best to bring a progressive “women’s lib” energy to a decade that notoriously locked down civil rights. There are efforts to diversify the cast in appreciable ways, though the realities of the era keep those characters from winning too many personal victories.

Outside the core group here, who start out as a ragtag band of investigators and eventually coalesce into something approaching the well-oiled legal machine viewers know from the original series, Perry Mason boasts a wide range of supporting players: There’s Chris Chalk‘s stalwart Officer Paul Drake, a Black patrolman finding his way within a racist system in a twist on the original series’ character; Stephen Root‘s District Attorney Maynard Barnes, who chews the scenery with the best of them either in the courtroom for the jury or mugging on the courthouse steps for reporters; Gayle Rankin and Nate Corddry as The Dodsons, the parents of a baby boy who find themselves embroiled in a heinous kidnapping case with far-reaching roots; Lili Taylor and Tatiana Maslany as the mother-daughter team at the head of an Evangelical church that is experiencing a swell in popularity thanks to the charismatic Alice (Maslany, who struggles to reach the ecstatic and engaging heights written for her character); Andrew Howard and Eric Lange as Detectives Ennis and Holcomb, who are as likely to crack criminal skulls as they are to harass Perry Mason himself; and Robert Patrick as Herman Baggerly, a mysterious benefactor with a part to play in all of it.

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Image via HBO

Even players like Veronica Falcón‘s sexually charged and fiscally minded ace pilot/businesswoman Lupe, and Jefferson Mays‘ squirrelly but well-meaning coroner Virgil make colorful additions to an otherwise predictable cast of characters. All the pieces are here, and they all have some twisting, turning arcs to play out over the series’ first eight episodes, but it takes a long time before viewers will see how these disparate parts fit together.

That’s the other major change from the previous series: Where Perry Mason of old would solve a case (or at least get his client out of the hot seat) within 60 minutes, HBO’s Perry Mason spends the entirety of its first season on one case. Granted, it’s a big one, but if we’re expected to believe that Rhys’ Mason goes from down-and-out drunk to respectable lawyer-type in the space of less than six months, the least they could do was give him and his team a softball case to win before tackling the many-headed hydra that lurks at the center of this mystery. Even Daredevil managed to do that much. The drama delivers a couple of interesting twists along the way (the best of which arrive in the finale), but along with those bright moments come some equally silly padding that balances the whole thing out.

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Image via HBO

Perry Mason at times wants to play its title character as a savant, but those “aha” moments come painfully slow, too few and far between. It also, bizarrely, never wants him to be a tough guy, despite his military background and propensity to mix it up with cops and criminals alike; I could have used a little more steel in Perry’s spine and a lot less drink in his glass. But neither Perry’s military trouble, Della’s pro-woman platform, nor Drake’s one-man equality crusade get much closure by the season’s end; that may be by design, but it’s not exactly rewarding after an eight-episode slog through serial child kidnappings and killings, brutal executions, racial tensions (and more than a few tropes), ostentatious sex scenes, and slow-burn investigating either.

Perry Mason wants to dig at the gritty underbelly of post-Depression Los Angeles in order to explore just how that setting could have acted as a crucible for the white knight that Perry Mason became. Instead, all we get is an overwrought love letter to all things noir, Steinbeck, and the Depression itself, a bleak and depressing reminder that, even in victory, the lowest of the low still have it worse than the upper crust.

Rating: C+

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Television