‘Perry Mason’ Gets a Dark & Gritty Reimagining in Series Premiere (RECAP)
[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Perry Mason Season 1 Episode 1, “Chapter 1.”]
To say that Perry Mason was before my time would be a massive understatement. I wasn’t yet born during the show’s original run from 1957-1966 or the short-lived 1973 revival or even when the first TV movie aired in 1985. Yet, despite being a millennial who grew up in the North of England, I’d somehow heard of Erle Stanley Gardner’s fictional American lawman. Maybe it’s because his name is frequently referenced in other TV shows and even in music—from Ozzy Osbourne to Lil Wayne. “Perry Mason facin’ the barrel if he tattle / My God is my judge; no gown, no gavel,” Weezy raps on Tha Carter III. When someone becomes a pop culture reference point, we know we’re dealing with an iconic character.
So, while I’m not sure the world was screaming out for a Perry Mason reboot in 2020, I can see why it’s happened. Obviously, there is a lot of love and affection for this character. And in an era where remakes and reboots are all the rage, it stands to reason that TV’s favorite defense lawyer would eventually get the same treatment.
Friday Night Lights alum Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald are at the helm of the new Mason, which receives the full HBO treatment. Seriously, you could check off an entire HBO bingo card in one go—high production value, star-studded cast, gorgeous sets, moody atmospherics, and, of course, HBO stalwart Tim Van Patten on director duty. As with most prestige TV era remakes, it’s a darker, grittier, filmic reimagining of a beloved character. Unlike the original, this is less of a courtroom drama and more a film noir detective story.
Now, did this show need to be under the Perry Mason banner given it barely resembles the original? Probably not. But on its own merits, there is a lot to enjoy in this premiere. Sure, it’s not particularly breaking any new ground—you can draw comparisons to plenty of other HBO classics. It has the dazzling period-piece aesthetics of a Boardwalk Empire with the homburg hats and evening gowns and electric streetcars. There’s the cultic crime story of a True Detective with its child murder and creepy conspiratorial plots. And there’s even a Sopranos-style dose of dark humor in both the dialogue and action sequences. But it’s in striking the right balance among all those elements where the show succeeds, at least in the first episode.
All of this is propped up by an assured performance from the Emmy Award-winning Matthew Rhys. Rhys has a doubly tough task as he not only has to escape the shadow of the late, great Raymond Burr, who made Mason famous, but he’s also got to shake off any association to the other popular character he played, Phillip Jennings on FX’s The Americans. When you’ve been a mainstay of a long-running TV series for years like Rhys on The Americans, it can be challenging to make people see you as anyone but that character. It’s a testament to Rhys’s skill as an actor just how comfortably he slips into his new role and makes it stand out from previous characters he’s played, as well as Burr’s portrayal of Mason.
Rhys’s Mason is a bit of a bum, at least at this point in his life. He’s certainly not the confident and successful lawyer of the original. This is Mason’s origin story, set in 1932 Los Angeles, the only city prospering amid the Great Depression, thanks to the thriving film industry and an evangelical Christian revival. Mason, however, is not prospering; if anything, he’s floundering. He’s a down on his luck private investigator who lives on a dairy farm in the rundown house his father used to own. Mason bumbles around in a spluttering milk truck, mustard stains on his tie, snapping salacious photos of movie stars to sell to competing agents. This Mason is the kind of man who drinks booze for breakfast and does his clothes shopping at the local morgue. He’s barely hanging on.
Sure, there’s a lot of trope-y material here. The troubled war veteran turned drunk detective with an estranged wife and kid; we’ve seen it hundreds of times. But when you’re doing what is in many ways a film noir pastiche, there is a certain amount of leeway, especially if these things are done well. And Perry Mason does them well, and there is just enough of a spin on the familiar. For example, Mason, like many dour detectives before him, embroils in casual but ultimately loveless flings with a female friend. But where the woman is usually 20 years younger, fresh out of college, and overly smitten, Mason’s lover is a mature Hispanic woman who takes no s**t. Lupe (Veronica Falcon) dictates the relationship in the bedroom (hilarious sex scene) and emotionally, making sure things never cross into dependency.
Then there is the solid sense of humor running through the show, which is a surprise given the episode starts with the grisly death of an infant. Mason can be sullen, but he’s also quick-witted and dripping in sarcasm. His banter with mentor/colleague Pete (another HBO regular in Shea Whigham) provides some much-needed levity alongside the darker narratives elsewhere. There are great lines littered throughout, like when Mason is rummaging through the belongings of the dead for a new tie, and the coroner tells him, “I have a domestic stabbing with a three-piece.” Or when Mason is grilled on the witness stand about an alleged assault. “I threw a cow pie at a guy trying to buy my father’s house,” he snipes.
As for the story itself, the jury is still out on whether it can sustain across eight episodes. There is sufficient intrigue in the premiere, which begins with a kidnapping gone awry. Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson are held up for a suitcase of cash in exchange for their son, only to find their baby boy dead with his eyelids stitched open—a rather disturbing image to kick off the show. There is distrust in the police (and corruption, which is especially timely), so when the case lands on the table of struggling attorney E.B. Jonathan (the superb John Lithgow), he brings in Mason to help. Given its high profile nature and the potential ties to the LAPD and the Church, this is the kind of case that could make both E.B. and Mason’s careers.
The first episode sets up the key players well. We learn that a cop was in on the kidnapping, Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard), who kills the other kidnappers when he finds out that Mason sniffed out the getaway car used in the crime. Ennis looks to be somewhat of a big bad for Mason to square up against throughout the season. Then there’s the bright and resourceful Della Street (Juliet Rylance), Mason’s secretary in the original novels/series, here introduced as E.B.’s legal secretary. And, of course, the enigmatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), the radio host preacher, who, while we don’t meet just yet, looms over proceedings in paintings and photographs. Given Alice is played by the sensational Maslany, one assumes she and the Church will play a much larger role in the story going forward.
The side story with the Hammersmith movie studio is a little thin, but it works in showing how Mason operates. Some executives violently accost him when he tries to blackmail them after capturing one of their up-and-coming starlets in a compromising position. Mason doesn’t get what he wants. In fact, he gets beaten and branded with the burning barrel of a pistol, left with only a dollar for his hard work, much to Pete’s disappointment. “I overplayed it,” Mason states, which sums up the kind of character we’re dealing with here.
We’re a long way from the smart and always one-step-ahead Mason who later rules the courtroom, always coming out on top no matter the odds against him. There is a lot of potential in seeing how this Mason develops across the series and if he winds up resembling Burr’s portrayal by the end. And if the remaining seven episodes are as strong as the premiere, we’re in for a good time, and with that, your Honor, I rest my case!
Perry Mason, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO