And This HBO Reimagining Might Be More Like The Original — In A Way That May Make You Think Differently About the Original
In the nearly three years I’ve had to wait since the end of the superb first season of HBO’s reinvention of Perry Mason, I’ve had time to reflect on the original series (aided, I should add by some helpful commentary by John Oliver this past year). I may have written in an earlier article that Raymond Burr’s version of Mason was a cliched procedural, a product of the 1950s. I’ve come to think that it’s possible that maybe there was something subversive about the original that may make so many think twice about the series they’ve spent more than a half a century either loving or reviling.
Is it possible that the original Perry Mason was, in a very subtle way, an indictment of the criminal justice system at the time? Think about it before you reject the idea. For over nine years, the police more or less arrested an innocent person for murder and every aspect of the criminal justice system worked so that they were facing indictment and basically the world believe that were killers. Perry Mason was the only person who had faith there were innocent, used the flaws in the prosecution’s case to prove they had the wrong man, and then managed to arrange things so that the guilty party confessed in court so there could be no doubt the prosecution had blundered spectacularly. No one in the criminal justice system ever admitted they’d made a mistake even after the confession, they never went so far as to thank Mason, often the same cops were arresting the wrong person the very next week and Hamilton Burger, despite the fact that he had prosecuted an innocent person over two hundred times, never suffered any career consequences for his actions and just kept on going through week after week with no questions or apparent doubts about it. (Though seriously, if you’re losing over two hundred times to the same attorney alone, you might want to seriously consider sending someone else to do take the heat.) For over a decade, Perry Mason was the only hope you had if you were being railroaded by the criminal justice system, and its worth remembering that not long after the show was cancelled, series like Dragnet would start the half a century march towards the idea of the criminal justice system, especially cops and prosecutors, essentially walking on water.
So not only was it exactly the right time for the new version of Perry Mason to return in the summer of 2020, if you view the original in the light that I’ve just said, you can make the argument that there’s fundamentally no basic difference between the new version and the old. The cops are still arresting the wrong people, the prosecution is determined to railroad them, and will use the media whole-heartedly to do so. The major difference in a key respect is that the new show is arguing that what is going on is not a flaw in the justice system but how its supposed to work. In the premiere of Season 2, a newly sworn-in DA Hamilton Burger freely tells both Perry and Della Street: “There is no true justice. There’s the only illusion of justice.” The cops are corrupt and working for the highest bidder, the prosecution and the judges are in on the scam and the media is doing everything in its power to hang the defendants in the public eye before they do in reality. The poor and minorities are being used as easy scapegoats at the mercy of the rich and powerful. This has been the reality of our justice system for decades, and perhaps one of the reasons so many disliked the first season was that the new version was actually saying the quiet part out loud.
Of course, there are other reasons, many involving the main regulars. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) who was just Perry’s loyal secretary for decades has not only been the power behind the throne (she was essentially keeping E.B. Jonathan’s practice alive for years in Season 1) she is ambitious, intelligent, and perhaps worst in the eyes of decades of ‘shippers’ a closeted lesbian. Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) is aware of her secret because he is a closeted homosexual himself and freely uses Della as a beard in public. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) the ultra-competent PI that worked for Perry for over a decade is an African-American who starts out the show as an LAPD patrolman who endures racism from his peers and resigns after the first season after he can no longer face the rot at the department.
And Perry is not the stoic idealist Raymond Burr played him as for over a decade. When we first met him in Season 1 at the height of the Depression (the show started in 1931, when Erle Stanley Gardener published his first short story about him) he was a cynical PI, a veteran of the Great War, divorced, an absent father and drifting from job to job. He believed in nothing but his next paycheck at the start of the series, had to be convinced by his mentor and Della to work on the case, and was utterly cynical about everything that he faces, both police officers and even the people he worked with. He essentially managed to pass the bar because Burger gave him the answers to the California bar exam. He spent much of his time in his first case unable to deal with his client the more she deteriorated over the stress of both the trial and the loss of her child. Nor did his work lead to her acquittal — there was a mistrial because a colleague of Perry’s bribed one of the jurors to cause a hung jury. It was not until after this we learnt that Perry was better than he gave himself credit for — he’d convinced two of the other jurors of his client’s innocence.
The problem is, as season 2 begins, Perry is just as lost as he was at the beginning of the series. He has drifted more towards civil work than criminal, mainly because the trial took so much out of him. He gets no pleasure out of his job any more and continues to snap at anyone who tries to help, including Della whose still walking him through every step of the process. And it’s not until halfway through the first season we know why he’s in more pain — Emily Dodson, whose acquittal he managed, has committed suicide after months of sending increasingly desperate letters to Perry that he couldn’t bring himself to respond too. Halfway through the season premiere, we see him on a motorcycle racing as fast as he can towards a guardrail, and we know that he is, if anything, more self-destructive than he was when he got started.
None of this would work without the incredible performance of Matthew Rhys in the title role. For six seasons he was the co-lead of arguably the greatest shows of the 2010s The Americans, playing Philip Jennings, a Soviet spy in 1980s D.C. Rhys was superb throughout the series because as much as he believed in his cause, season after season it was clear that he was haunted by the actions he had to take, lying, usually seducing women who were key to targets out of duty and increasingly dealing with the fallout. (He spent much of the second half of the series essentially seducing the teenage daughter of a State Department official and you could tell it sickened him rather than tantalized him.) In the series finale, he confessed that he had never been a good spy. Philip Jennings was not an antihero in the same way contemporary characters such as Walter White or Marty Byrde were; he was doing bad things but it was out of a sense of loyalty to a cause and he questioned just how far his handlers wanted him and his family to go.
In that sense, you can see that Rhys’ Mason is a descendant (or is an ancestor? The timelines are tricky) for Philip Jennings. Mason finds himself doing much of what he does because he has no cause to follow, no true path. At the start of the second season, the law is providing no more satisfaction to him that being a detective was. When Burger utters the line I gave above, Mason responds: “Who the f — — wants to be a part of that?” And in a way, that’s as clear a reason as when two Latino migrants are accused of murdering a millionaire son come to his office in the previous episode that he not only sends them away initially, but later in that episode agrees to represent them. The Perry Mason in this series no more believes in the justice system than himself. He needs to believe in something and that is why he believes in his clients when no one else will. It’s as much for his survival as it is for theirs.
At this point in my review I realize I’ve expended a lot of energy on every part of Perry Mason but the storyline and the technical aspects. To be clear, both of them are worth watching if they had been on a series that had nothing to do with Perry Mason. The story follows Brooks McCutcheon, the son of an LA millionaire who is essentially a wastrel and a disappointment to his father. His reach constantly exceeds his grasp, in the Pilot he is trying to get a major league baseball team for Los Angeles, something that he built a stadium for before he made sure the league wanted him. (There is a fair amount of joking by baseball saying that Los Angeles ‘isn’t a major league city.” Brooks was clearly ahead of his time in that regard, but as we now that institution was as cynical as every other aspect of life.) At the end of the season premiere, McCutcheon is found dead in his car.
Two young Latino vagrants are rounded up and arrested for the crime before the title sequence of Season 2 airs. When talking about the case with Paul, his old partner (Shea Whigham continues to steal every scene he’s in), Perry has doubts about the narrative and the evidence presented. “I can see your mind working,” Paul says, and that night he breaks into the locker with the car and works it out in his head. The next day, he goes to see the clients and works out very clear that they couldn’t have killed McCutcheon and asks about the evidence. One of the key elements — a gold coin of McCutcheon’s we saw him flipping in the premiere — was found in their shanty-town ‘home’. They say found in the garbage and planned to hock it. “I would have done the same thing,” Perry tells him. It’s 1932. Anybody who found it would.
The second season leans even more into the reality of the depression, and the haves and the have-nots. Shots of Della Street going to the Gonzalez’s home contrast with her attending a fundraiser with Hamilton among those we would now call the ‘one percent.’ Paul, who was never able to find as much work as he hoped after Perry walked away from criminal cases, has moved into his brother’s home with the rest of his family. The first two episodes feature the head of a grocery department absolutely determined to run any competitor he has out of business, including taking his store as payment. Perry and Della earn the money they’ll need to mount a defense to help this man ‘expand his enterprises’. (I wonder of if Wal-Mart started this way?) A major storyline involves a ship where people gamble all night while the cooks are working with horrible produce.
All of the performances continue to be top notch, from Rhys on down. In addition to all the actors I’ve already mention, the series continues to be a fine outlet for extraordinary character actors, from Sean Astin and Hope Davis (infinitely more interesting then her character on Your Honor) Eric Lange, who continues to exude sleaze for the second straight season as a cop on the take, and Gretchen Mol, showing up as Perry’s former wife, trying to find the best for their son who we met for the first time last night.
There have been some complaints about the second season, some meritorious, some far less so. One of the more foolish of the latter is that this show is more mystery than courtroom drama which, if you watched the original, you should know far too well that Raymond Burr was not an attorney the same way that say, Bobby Donnell or Mike Kuzak were. A more legitimate one is that the series is a bit darker than some would like and that its not clear whether all of the storylines will pay out. I can’t exactly argue with the former charge and I have my own doubts about some of the romantic subplots brewing. I’m not entirely certain for the reason for Della Street’s lesbian dalliance (except perhaps to mirror that she is cracking under the burden of trying to do too much in private) and while I do want to see Perry happy with someone, I remain unconvinced that this prospective relationship with one of his son’s teachers is the way to go.
That said, I’m still overjoyed at the return of Perry Mason. This is the kind of series HBO, Peak TV and the crime drama all need at the same time, and they are all present in a superbly acted, written, and directed series. In an earlier article I said that too many ‘flashier’ HBO dramas get award recognition from the Emmys even though they are unworthy and that comes at the cost of other HBO dramas. I’m pretty certain this will be the case this year: Last of Us and House of the Dragon are already huge critical and popular success, Succession will no doubt dominate no matter what the final season is like, and who knows what the Emmys will do with The White Lotus. But there is something I find infinitely preferable about a series like Perry Mason a series that, at its core, is far closer to the original shows that started the revolution, is more faithful to its source material than some might believe it to be, and doesn’t try to be anything greater than it is.
HBO is going through a transition — both Succession and Barry will be gone by the end of 2023, it will be awhile before Season 2 of either House of The Dragon or Euphoria come back and who knows when the next installment of The Last of Us will come. It remains to be seen if there will be another season of Perry Mason; part of the reason it took so long for the second season was (in addition to everything else) it took some convincing to win Rhys back for another stint. I really hope both he and the network can be convinced for a third season and beyond. Hell, it’s not like there’s any shortage of source material.
My score: 4.5 stars.