Television

HBO’s Grim, Gruesome Perry Mason Gives the Courtroom Drama a True Detective Makeover

The veteran TV lawyer, now played by Matthew Rhys, gets a new origin story as a private investigator in Depression-era Hollywood.

Perry Mason stands in an alley, wearing a leather jacket and fedora.
Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason. HBO/Merrick Morton

Midway through HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason, a colleague affectionately tells Matthew Rhys’ drunk, unshaven, directionless private investigator, “Frankly, I find it offensive that you choose to mask your intelligence and decency with cynicism and slothfulness.” The same could be said of Perry Mason itself, which begins as a been-there-seen-that detective drama before dropping its cynical side and revealing itself to be a crusading courtroom drama instead.

The original Perry Mason aired from 1957 to 1966, and invented the procedural. In each episode, defense attorney Perry Mason (played by Raymond Burr), got his wrongly accused clients off with some impressive gumshoe lawyering; the typical climax involved an on-the-stand confession of the kind that influenced My Cousin Vinnie and A Few Good Men. These two examples, themselves almost 30 years old, are nonetheless 30 years younger than the first Perry Mason, which aired in black and white, and is the kind of creaky intellectual property that even someone steeped in television might mistakenly refer to as Matlock or Columbo.

Watching the first few episodes of the new  Perry Mason, I marveled, not for the first time, at the talismanic power of intellectual property: HBO would rather reboot Perry Mason, citing as specific inspiration not even the TV show but the early, pulpier 1930s Erle Stanley Gardner novels, than just make a whole new show about a private dick? I mean, in this Perry Mason, Perry Mason, the famous lawyer, isn’t even a lawyer! But I was slow on the uptake. What you have with HBO’s Perry Mason is a real Case of Launching the Franchise, and those always start in the same place: the origin story. 

Perry Mason begins in Los Angles on New Year’s Eve 1931, as it ticks into 1932. The Depression is raging. The homeless and jobless are everywhere, even as the movie studios are raking in cash and Evangelical megachurches are booming on the tithes of the desperate and searching. In this noirish and sun-dappled mire, an infant named Charlie Dodson is kidnapped and ransomed for $100,000. His desperate parents cough up the cash but Charlie is killed anyway, found with his eyes stitched open, riding on downtown LA’s then-bustling, now-razed Angels Flight funicular. The father (Nate Corddry) immediately becomes a suspect, and a rich benefactor procures for him the services of one of Los Angeles’ leading defense attorneys, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), an increasingly cranky expert who has fatherly affection for one Perry Mason (Rhys).

Affection is not a feeling Mason much inspires. A hard-drinking, lost WWI veteran, he’s haunted by the trenches and making a sporadic living spying on the sexual contretemps of movie stars. Divorced and estranged from his young son, he lives alone on a family farm that’s being encroached on all sides by an airfield. His cigarettes dangle from his lips perpendicular to the ground and he could imaginably have a poker night with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, if any of those guys could stand company.

At some point in its development, this iteration of Perry Mason was attached to True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, and the first episode, the weakest of the series, has a whiff of that other HBO crime drama about it: a stiff breeze of sad-man energy, a splash of emo-ponderousness, a baby corpse, and a grisly triple homicide. (Perry Mason is also the latest prestige fare to feature male nudity, primarily in the form of male corpses, as though it can make good on decades of overly titillating female nudity with deflated snuffleupagi.)

It’s to Rhys’ credit that he doesn’t quite work in this environment. He projects just a little too much decency and eagerness to be a seen-it-all nihilist. His no-place newscaster accent (Rhys is Welsh) sounds as out of place as a viola in a mosh pit. He’s no hangdog California Joe; He sounds like he was born to talk to a jury. And oh right! That’s where the show is headed! The eight-episodes of the series (for now, Perry Mason is a limited series, though you don’t have to be a detective to figure that “limit” is likely to extend beyond one season) map closely onto the formula for one standard Perry Mason episode: half out of court, half in it. As the show more or less transforms in flight, each episode becomes a more fitting showcase for Rhys, an actor who projects square decency even when he’s neither square nor decent. (Even his character in The Americans, a Communist spy who had killed dozens of people, seemed fundamentally nice.) It’s still noir (-ish), but it’s not hardboiled.

Even in the rough opener though, the show does something structurally wise (if unlikely to make it popular on Reddit) It tells us who did it. It thus saves itself from the impossible tension of having to satisfyingly “solve” the case and gets to splash around in motive, scheme, cover-ups, and a period Los Angeles that feels big, cruel and vital. Pulled into the case are E.B.’s canny secretary and associate Della (Juliet Rylance), ever attuned to the blinkered sexism of the men around her, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) a pal of Perry’s, a PI with a more lax sense of personal morality and the most delicate of pencil mustaches, and the police officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a black beat cop coping with condescension and racism from his white colleagues. Also central to the story is the dead infant’s mother Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) and her church: the Radiant Assembly of God, a new evangelical ministry built on the charisma of Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), a down-to-earth emissary of God, and the financial backing of dozens of powerful and shady men.

Insofar as Perry Mason is a noir, its politics fit the moment. As Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk put it in a recent tweet, “Just FYI, classic noir is basically “eff the police” rendered as a genre.” The author and TV writer Megan Abbot replied with a quote ofthe final line of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.” The cops in Perry Mason are threatening and mercenary, corrupt and dangerous. They have no interest in truth or justice, a reflexive position they take even when they don’t know they are protecting their own. Aided by the equally corrupt District Attorney, they coerce confessions, plant evidence, beat people, and bully even their own, if their own are black. Officer Drake is threatened and belittled by his colleagues before ultimately joining Perry Mason’s outfit, which also boasts a number of Mason regulars, re-imagined here as openly queer.

Ultimately though, Perry Mason is not as jaded as noir, where a man may solve a case but get no peace. (This Perry Mason is set just a few years before Chinatown.) The system is corrupt, but it’s not entirely so, because there’s Perry Mason. As Perry becomes his superhero-lawyer self, as he assembles his newly diverse supporting team, the detective show gives way to the more straightforward pleasures of a courtroom drama, where the system can work, even if it’s just barely, because there’s a lawyer to believe in. “There’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right,” Perry Mason says—but he always knows the difference, and his righteousness burnishes the whole blasted game. The conclusion of Perry Mason is not overly cheerful, but it’s not entirely cynical either. Perry Mason, after all, is back on the job.