‘Perry Mason’ revival off to solid start
HBO’s reboot of classic crime show shows promise with first few episodes
A Times Special Feature Ever since Erle Stanley Garder wrote the first Perry Mason novel, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” in 1933, the detective has been a mainstay of American pop culture. He’s appeared in multiple films, TV shows, radio broadcasts and even in comic books.
The most famous iteration of Perry Mason is undoubtedly the 1950’s TV show starring Raymond Burr, which lasted a remarkable 9 season run. Burr’s Mason was the prototype for Andy Griffith’s Matlock – a good guy lawyer with a keen eye for detail and a mind for untangling criminal mysteries. Perhaps the adaptations of Mason most faithful to Gardner’s novels are the series of B-films made at Warner Brothers in the mid 1930’s starring Warren William. William’s Mason was into solving mysteries as a kind of gentlemanly game of wits. He had a keen intuition about his clients, but was less morally upright than the Mason of 1950’s television. He was not above the dubious ethics of fixing evidence to convict a person he knew to be guilty.
HBO’s new series takes Perry Mason in a very different direction from other interpretations. This Mason (portrayed by the brilliant Matthew Rhys) is not yet a lawyer (though he’s an investigator for one), and while the other Mason’s are either gentlemanly or pictures of moral rectitude, this Mason is a brooding, troubled man – a divorced WWI veteran bedeviled by his past. For him, solving mysteries is something of an obsession, a way of learning about human nature in hopes of making sense of a chaotic world.
It’s the kind of philosophy one most associates with American film noir that were popular after WWII, but the show believably transposes this sense of nihilism and dislocation to Depression-era California.
This new version of Perry Mason is very much fixed in it’s particular era of time, too. The show’s producers go to great lengths to evoke the texture and tenor of the 1930’s and many plot elements evoke actual people and events of the early 20th century. Just two episodes in, we’ve already seen Mason-world versions of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, a sort of hybrid of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Marion Parker murder, and evangelist/faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson.
When combined with the lush period design and gorgeous cinematography, the show creates an immersive faux-historical experience.
This is perhaps the show’s greatest strength.
As far as it’s delivering the mystery goods, it’s a bit too early to say. The first two episodes have been thoroughly interesting, but in contrast to the case-a-day format of earlier versions of Perry Mason, this show doles out the plot in small chunks. The producers even go so far as to call the episodes “Chapters”, which gives this an originalist feel even though this interpretation is as far from Gardner’s novels as any has been.
The story is about a couple who comes home to discover that their baby has been kidnapped. They pay the ransom, and recover their child, only to find that it has been murdered.
Later, evidence arises that they may know more about the crime than they are telling the police. This is where Perry Mason comes in.
It’s an interesting plot, and if not earth-shattering in it’s originality, it’s is ably brought to life by a uniformly stellar cast, with faces TV fans will be very familiar with – Matthew Rhys (Perry Mason), John Lithgow (E.B. Jonathan), Stephen Root (Maynard Barnes), and Robert Patrick (Herman Baggerly), and talented up and comers who’s names you are sure to learn like Chris Chalk (Officer Drake) and Tatianna Maslany (Sister Alice McKeegan).
The is a handsomely made show, and one that I will undoubtedly be tuning into for weeks to come. With the caveats that this show does contain sex, nudity and language some viewers might find offensive (like most HBO shows), I would recommend this to viewers who like mysteries, noir, and period films.
John M. Heath is a teacher and film buff as well as a collector of historical and pop culture artificats.