Perry Mason was Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television.
It ran from 1957 to 1966 with star Raymond Burr as a criminal-defense lawyer in the first half of the episode exploring a new case, and in the second half in a courtroom drama. Law & Order: SVU knows this formula well….
In 2020 the character is rebooted in a new HBO series starring Matthew Rhys (The Americans, Brothers & Sisters). Producer Robert Downey Jr. was originally set for the role, but you can’t complain about the fine talents of Rhys.
The 8 part series adopts a broader format, dispensing with procedural cases each episode and preferring a series arc.
It is set in 1931 during the Great Depression, with the action kicking off around a ransom for a child kidnapping in Los Angeles.
Perry Mason lives at a family-owned two-cow dairy in the middle of an airfield (no, I have no idea why, either!) and is down on his luck. Mason has his demons, and is estranged from family, presenting as more flawed than the heroic Raymond Burr characterisation.
Things are a lot seedier in this version too. There is language, nudity and even a bit of gore… his first case chasing scandalous movie Chubby Carmichael, is clearly a nod to the downfall of Fatty Arbuckle.
Assisting him is investigator Pete (Shea Whigham), while friend and mentor, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) and his assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance) soon get involved in the gruesome kidnapping crime.
The plot proves quite convoluted when it introduces local evangelist Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany doing her best Aimee Semple McPherson) and Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), a member of the same Pentecostal church.
While intimidating LA detectives Ennis Andrew Howard and Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange) want to shut down Mason, look out for black cop Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) whose smarts are racially dismissed.
“I don’t trust the Los Angeles police department to do the job as needed,” Rhys hears.
“Neither would I,” he replies.
In the hands of talented director Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire, The Pacific), Perry Mason is one handsome customer -but you may need sunglasses to cut through the overuse of yellow by cinematographers and designers… everything glows to the point of stylish absurdity. There are even flashbacks ….and a pretty big fedora hat count.
Rhys is strong in the title role, always underplaying and always watchable, even if the plotting is messy. But in the two episodes I watched I saw no courtroom action worth my time, so if the show is called Perry Mason it needs to deliver on the brand. Still, at least we have John Lithgow as considerable support.
It’s Perry Mason where style is of equal, if not extra, importance than the substance. Time will tell if HBO has over-egged this…
“Everybody’s up to something… hiding something.. and everybody is guilty.”
Perry Mason airs 8:30pm Mondays on FOX Showcase.