Roush Review: Rhys Rocks in a Bold New Twist on ‘Perry Mason’

Perry Mason Matthew Rhys

Call it “The Case of the Revolutionary Revision.”

This is not the Perry Mason we grew up on: He’s disheveled, often drunk, even more frequently volatile, more of a seedy Sam Spade than the infallible attorney of TV rerun legend. You know you’re in an alternate universe when, toward the end of HBO’s gritty reimagining of the iconic legal warrior, he’s warned by a character very familiar in the canon: “No one ever confesses on the stand.”

Huh? What Perry Mason is this, anyway? A more realistic and sordidly satisfying one, it turns out. (Not that anything could deter me from watching the occasional late-night repeat of the Raymond Burr classic, an eternally soothing tonic.)

Erupting in pugilistic rage at injustice and corruption, his face lined with sorrow and trauma befitting a World War I veteran, Matthew Rhys (Emmy winner for The Americans) is a marvelous Mason, though less Burr than Bogart as he evokes film noir antiheroes. Purists may balk at some of the character flaws among other additions to his backstory in this 1930s period piece. But purity is hardly the point.

Matthew Rhys HBO Perry Mason

(Credit: HBO)

“The way I see it, there’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right,” Mason tells ahead-of-her-time secretary Della Street (a saucy Juliet Rylance), whose back talk, ambition and after-hours proclivities might make Barbara Hale (TV’s original Della) blush.

This fiery Perry Mason has a lot to learn, about the law at the very least, and that’s part of the fun of this story. Over eight episodes, he evolves from a cynical, rule-breaking investigator who takes many a licking to a wet-behind-the-ears legal advocate blundering his way through a high-profile courtroom case. Self-doubt is not something we associate with this champion for truth, but it makes him a heck of a lot more intriguing.

The case that changes Mason’s life and redirects his career involves a baby’s kidnapping gone horribly wrong, with connections to Sister Alice, a beautiful radio evangelist (Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany), her controlling mother (Lili Taylor) and their financially shady Los Angeles church. Similarities to Showtime’s current Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, also set in the ’30s, are weirdly plentiful, but this is nearly always more convincing. Although making Perry’s future right-hand man Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) an African American LAPD cop chafing at institutional racism before joining Mason’s team may feel to some at least one subplot too many, and too enlightened for the period, however timely.

Angling for a supporting-actor Emmy, the great John Lithgow appears as Mason’s mentor, a once-renowned lawyer who poignantly realizes he’s well past his prime. Unlike Perry, whom we hope to get to see hit his stride in seasons to come — and maybe even make somebody confess on the stand for old times’ sake.

Perry Mason, Series Premiere, Sunday, June 21, 9/8c, HBO