HBO’s Perry Mason bears very little resemblance to the CBS version of Perry Mason. The hour-long courtroom drama that ran from 1957 to 1966 is the most well-known iteration of the Mason narratives, which started with the Erle Stanley Gardner novels of the 1930s and yielded a radio series, several TV movies and, counting the original CBS show and the new HBO one, three television series. Who could forget The New Perry Mason, which aired for a single season on CBS in the early 1970s? A lot of people? Oh, okay.
Still, it’s the Raymond Burr incarnation of Perry Mason that looms largest and that established a formula for legal procedurals that endures to this day. (Fun fact: The original Perry Mason was ushered to the screen by Gail Patrick, the first female executive producer in primetime TV.) The 2020 Perry Mason, which casts Matthew Rhys in the titular role, is not that Perry Mason. Borrowing from the pulp fiction-y aspects of Gardner’s original stories while spinning its own yarn, it is more like a Perry Mason origin story, the Batman Begins of this particular franchise. Unlike Burr’s Perry Mason, Rhys’s is messy, unethical, and for most of this eight-episode season, a private detective. He only transforms into the defense attorney he is famous for being toward the end of the season, when the kidnapping and murder case that gives Perry Mason its narrative spine inches closer toward resolution.
The result, from writers/showrunners Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones and directed by Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire) and Deniz Gamze Erguven (Mustang), is a simultaneously gorgeous, gritty, and sometimes downright gory period piece filled with fine performances, but also overloaded a little with B and C storylines that could have been streamlined or cut. The excess fat in Perry Mason is a flaw, but not enough of one to detract from what is, overall, a fine and absorbing season of television.
That season opens in the final months of 1931 and introduces a Mr. Mason who earns his keep by hunting down a Fatty Arbuckle–esque movie star, snapping photos of him in highly compromising positions, then handing them over to the studio brass attempting to hold actors accountable based on their decency clauses. If life had a decency clause, this Perry Mason would definitely be in violation of it. He’s a heavy drinker. He regularly steals things from crime scenes, including entire human corpses. He buys new ties from a medical examiner willing to hand over the personal effects that belong to the bodies in his lockers. He’s got a dirty mouth and a lack of regard for most institutional authorities. But when he’s asked by his mentor, exhausted and mentally fraying attorney E.B. Jonathan (the wonderful John Lithgow), to look into the circumstances behind a botched kidnapping that resulted in the murder of an infant, Perry is hellbent on getting actual justice.
Getting actual justice means having to bump heads with members of the LAPD, most of whom are extremely bad cops. The lone upstanding officer is Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who also happens to be the lone Black man on the beat and is afforded exactly the amount of respect from his fellow white officers that you would expect, which is none. Drake eventually becomes a significant figure in the series, as does Della Street (Juliet Rylance), E.B.’s secretary and the only person with the organizational skills to keep his law practice in some semblance of order.
Those familiar with the original Perry Mason will recognize those names and get a kick out of watching as these updated versions of Drake and Della follow a trajectory that brings them into Perry’s orbit. Anyone watching, Mason-ophile or not, will appreciate the attention to early 1930s detail in the production and costume design. This is an era when calls are made by asking for the operator on a candlestick phone; when women wear stockings with seams up the back; and when men sport fedoras and thin mustaches that look like small caterpillars taking a nap on their upper lips. The vibe is pure L.A. noir, and the series encourages the audience to soak in its evocative bath, a bath that can get pretty bloody at times.
As previously noted, the acting in this series is superb, starting with Matthew Rhys. He brings the same grounded and fully realized approach to Perry as he did to The Americans’ Philip Jennings, both men who, in different contexts, want to be better people but are forced to do some very dirty work that makes that impossible. Rhys’s Perry is a hothead, prone to explosive blow-ups when circumstances conspire against him. But the main emotion that radiates from him is sadness. As a World War I veteran, a failed father, and a guy living on what’s left of his late parents’ dairy farm, this Perry Mason carries the weight of regret with him into every crime scene and courtroom. Rhys taps into those emotions beautifully, his eyes projecting so much sorrow that sometimes it seems like the entire upper half of his face is frowning.
Rhys is just one in an almost endless parade of standout actors. Chalk is excellent as a man striving mightily and daily to keep a lid on his long-simmering, justified anger. Lithgow gets completely inside the skin of E.B., a cantankerous but well-meaning father figure who regularly refers to Perry as “boy-o.” And then there’s Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sister Alice, a radio preacher and guiding force of the Radiant Assembly of God congregation, where the mother of the deceased baby, Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin of GLOW) is a member. Speaking in tongues and swearing she has the power to heal and even resurrect the dead, Maslany is charismatic enough to make you believe Sister Alice might actually have those powers.
That’s just scratching the surface of all the characters in this massive ensemble and the solid acting work done all around, which brings us back to the issue of the series’s excess fat. There are times when Perry Mason’s ambitions are a little too big, and it’s moved to meander away from its central story in ways that feel slightly unnecessary. There’s a flashback to Perry’s time on the battlefields that is well shot and helps explain how he got so used to gazing horror right in the face, but could have been edited out without losing much. Perry also has a romantic relationship with Lupe (Veronica Falcón), a pilot at the airport adjacent to Perry’s farm, that is somewhat necessary to the plot, but their scenes together function more as extraneous sidebars than crucial moments.
One could make an extremely reasonable argument that the person on this show who proves she’s truly capable of becoming an attorney is Della, not Perry. Rylance infuses her with intelligence and cool-headedness, qualities far more suited to lawyering than Perry’s impetuousness. One of the major missteps in this Perry Mason is how suddenly and quickly he transitions from private dick to attorney-at-law so that he can take on a high-profile case, despite having zero experience arguing before a judge. Considering this is an origin story, it would have made sense to spend a bit more time observing that process than on his various romps with Lupe.
On the other hand, if you’re watching Perry Mason, you probably want to be able to see Perry Mason defend someone accused of a crime. When Rhys eventually does that, he looks and sounds nothing like the ramrod-straight Raymond Burr. As previously noted, he’s messy. But that messiness also makes this well-known fictional figure much more interesting.