The Perry Mason Reboot The New Golden Age Needed
A confession (since this is the review for them): I never had much use for Perry Mason. The attorney whose clients are always innocent nearly killed the courtroom drama in its infancy. The idea that it was the lawyer’s job to prove his client innocent rather than the police set us up for more than three decades pedestrian courtroom dramas that it took us until David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco to spend half their careers overcorrecting. It didn’t help matters that, despite Raymond Burr’s best effort, the title character was absolute blank, with all his energy put through to his clients. His entire character was through the MacGuffins of his clients, and not even the relationships with his associates seemed real.
Which is why the fact that the Perry Mason that debuted on HBO is practically related to the 50s series in name only is just a blessed relief. In the opening fifteen minutes we get more detail on Perry than we did in nearly a decade on TV and God knows how many movies. This Perry is cynical, bitter, and just interested in making a buck. Hell, he’s not even an attorney yet. His official title is private investigator, but he calls that ‘a fancy name for a professional busybody’. He lives in a farm in the middle of an airstrip, with a Mexican aviatrix he has noisy sex with. He has no problem trying to blackmail the people who hire him and less use for his so called associates he has to bribe to business with. He’s a bitter veteran of the Great War, struggling to survive the Depression, and is divorced with a child he can’t even get his wife to put on the phone. Sam Spade wouldn’t give this Perry the time of day.
Matthew Rhys, whose doubt about everything he did was one of the greatest things about The Americans, is absolutely exceptional as Perry. He doesn’t wear the same kind of costumes that Philip Jennings was always in, but he doesn’t have too — this Perry is uncomfortable in his own skin. He barely has any patience to take on a case with a former boss (John Lithgow, in prime scenery-chewing form) hires him to do some looking into a kidnapping that has gone horribly wrong. In a way, 1930s LA is the perfect setting for this Perry Mason — the cops are so corrupt they don’t even bother to hide they consider everybody guilty and are more than willing to put on ‘verdict first, proof afterwards’ approach. The only reason they try to step carefully is because the suspect is the son-in-law of an important business man and the member of powerful church, led by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). In an impromptu sermon, she reveals just how well certain clergy can raise a lynch mob. Perry is convinced that everyone has a secret — but even when he finds one of the suspects, he doesn’t think he’s begun to plumb the depths of the case.
If this is the next step HBO is taking in drama series, I more than welcome it. It starts out with a franchise and then goes out of its way to violate every rule of it. So far, the most sympathetic characters on the show are E.B.’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) who is clearly doing more to be the conscience, and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) an LA beat officer, who has to deal with his commanding officer’s corruption and prejudice to try and make a dent in his world. (Anyone who knows even the smallest bits about the world of Perry Mason knows just how vital Drake and Street are to Perry’s future.) And it’s incredibly well acted: Shea Whigham, as Perry’s sidekick, steals every scene he’s in, and old hands Lili Taylor, Robert Patrick and Stephen Root continue to demonstrate their gifts in smaller scenes.
I realize some people will complain that the setup might as well just be a revision of True Detective: 1930S Edition. I wouldn’t necessarily complain about that, but these characters are already more fully founded with more depth to them than so many of the protagonists we got. And Rhys was always good as raising the conscience of a character we should’ve been inclined to find despicable on The Americans, and is doing just as well her. Maybe it’ll falter, but for a change I’m looking forward to seeing how this Perry gets to the truth of the mystery — in or out of the courtroom.
My score: 4.5 stars.