tv review

Perry Mason Has Solved the Case of Perry Mason

Wouldn’t you know it: Perry Mason gets a lot better when the titular defense attorney spends a lot of time in a courtroom! Photo: HBO Max

The second season of Perry Mason is a testament to how satisfying it is when a second season successfully reshapes the raw materials of a promising but imperfect first season. Perry Mason’s season two, premiering tonight on HBO, does this in some minor ways (Shea Whigham’s investigator character, Pete Strickland, has a better-defined emotional arc) and in some much more significant ones (a noir-style mystery that’s a better fit for the show’s “dark side of L.A.” vibe.) The clearest and most obvious improvement on the first season, though, is also the simplest. Perry Mason — the HBO show, but also the original TV series and the radio serial before it — is a story about a defense attorney. Wouldn’t you know it: Perry Mason gets a lot better when the man spends a lot of time in a courtroom!

In the first season of this revival series, Perry (Matthew Rhys) begins as a private investigator, skulking around the dark corners of L.A.’s seedy underbelly, finding all the unpleasant dirt on low-level city mobsters for his boss, attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). Eventually Perry and E.B. get involved in a weird, semi-spiritualist murder case about the death of a toddler, which drags them both into deeper waters than they’re comfortable with. But Perry’s never comfortable with any of it. He doesn’t like being an investigator, prying into everyone’s business to find out all the scandalizing things about their private lives, regardless of whether they’re actually criminal or amoral. He’s frustrated with E.B., who he thinks doesn’t take enough chances. He’s hung up on the slow destruction of his family farm (which is a character note that never really tracks). The clearest issue with season one is that the mystery and its rapt fascination with Tatiana Maslany’s cultish church leader is a mess. Underneath that, though, there was a fundamental lack of balance in its conception of the lead character. In spite of Rhys’s solid performance and the show’s very fun L.A. noir style, it’s hard to spend that much time with a Perry Mason origin story when no one — least of all Perry himself — seems to enjoy that part of his life.

The original Perry Mason is a legal procedural, which is to say, it follows the daily work procedures of a character. The point of the revival’s first season was that Perry Mason couldn’t yet commit to his own procedural rhythms, which is a fascinating idea in the abstract and very frustrating to watch in practice. Most TV procedurals are linked to mystery structures — either a whodunit, or a howdunit, or medical diagnostic versions of those. Perry’s season-one aimlessness and disinterest in the procedural elements of his own job combined to create a structural challenge for a series that wants to have a whodunit at its heart. Stretched across eight episodes, it was difficult for Perry Mason to wrangle the mystery’s many subplots and the development of the show’s recurring minor characters so that they all played well together. There’s energy behind building out the character of Della Street (Juliet Rylance), E.B.’s secretary, but it’s never exactly clear why we’re following her home rather than E.B. or Perry, and the character development never feels balanced with the mystery plotting. The same is true for policeman Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) and for Perry himself.

Season two is not a radical rebuilding of what came before, although E.B.’s death in season one means that part of the show was always going to be different. But Perry Mason is still a sad, sad man who’s hung up on cynicism and self-recrimination and the inadequacy of the American justice system. Della Street is still pragmatic, ambitious, and trying to tiptoe around the secret of her attraction to women. Los Angeles: still seedy! Crime: still rampant! The Great Depression: still pretty depressing! Except now, all of those things are true, and Perry Mason is an attorney instead of an investigator.

E.B.’s death and Perry’s begrudging acceptance that only he can save his season-one client finally tip him over into reluctant but effective litigator, which means that in nearly every episode of season two, he has to show up in a courtroom, stand in front of a judge (who Perry thinks is biased, of course), and argue about all the details of why his clients are on the right side of the law. It makes more sense structurally: All those messy threads of character development — Perry’s self-loathing and Della picking up hot chicks and Paul’s uncertainty about the best way to support his family — can still happen, but they’re framed inside the dependable rhythms of the season’s big court case. It puts a limit on the meandering mopiness, and it creates urgency every time the show follows characters home, because before too long they’re going to need to show up again in court. The courtroom framing also gives Perry, Della, and Paul more excuses to just be in a room together, interacting with one another. They have to talk through all the clues and test out theories! Plus, the courtroom scenes of a legal procedural are narratively useful: A lawyer is always trying to lay out the evidence in a clear, digestible way for a jury, which means they’re doing it for the viewing audience at the same time.

Just as important, though, all the courtroom scenes are crucial to what makes this iteration of Perry Mason (and Della!) work as characters. Perry’s grumpiness, his snappish temperament, his disdain for legal trickery and anything that gets in the way of The Truth — all of it is great! Except it makes him at least a little unbearable to be around, and it’s hard to understand why he’s even begrudgingly chosen the profession he’s in. When he’s actually in the courtroom, though, the other side of Perry Mason is finally on display. In spite of himself, he’s a showman. He loves to pull out surprising new evidence, and he loves to catch someone in a lie. He loves a good visual aid, and he loves to pretend to be shocked when he clearly is not. The first episode of season two includes a scene where he dramatically pulls several grocery items out of his briefcase to illustrate a point about two competing grocery chains. The jury loves it! It’s great! And then, in a later season-two scene when Della takes over questioning, her ambition and sense of drama are just as satisfying: She is just as ruthless, and just as effective, and little of it is visible until she has to take center stage.

It should be obvious that a legal procedural is better when the main character proceeds with a lot more legality, and yet it’s hard to overstate just how much it helps. There are two sides to Perry Mason as a character. He snoops around looking for clues, yes, but he also needs to stand in front of a stern judge and yell things like “Your Honor, I object!” Perry Mason’s second season finally puts both pieces together, and it is a gavel-banging good time.

Season two of Perry Mason premieres on HBO Monday, March 6.

Perry Mason Has Solved the Case of Perry Mason