Perry Mason: The Complete First Season (2020)
Created by Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald
Directed by Tim Van Patten, Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Written by Eleanor Burgess, Ron Fitzgerald, Steven Hanna, Rolin Jones, Sarah Kelly Kaplan, Kevin J. Hynes, Howard Korder
Based on the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner
Producers and Executive Producers - see list
Cinematography by Darran Tiernan, David Franco
Edited by Mako Kamitsuna, Ron Rosen, Meg Reticker
Music by Terence Blanchard
Production companies Dwight Street Book Club, Inflatable Moose Inc, Team Downey
Eight episodes of approx. one hour each
Warner Bros. Blu-ray
Rebooting a well-known property often creates a double-edged sword. You’ve got name recognition, yet that recognition carries with it familiarity of its past. Making things more problematic, the greater the points of entry to that property, the chances that someone won’t like the reboot increases with each incarnation.
Consider that the Perry Mason property has been issued and reissued (or rerun) in novels, a radio program, a television series, TV movies, comic books, and perhaps more. Perry Mason has become a part of our social fabric. Even for anyone who’s never seen an episode of the TV show or read one of the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, everyone seems to understand phrases like, “Okay, I was wrong. Don’t go all Perry Mason on me.”
Many people may not understand just how popular Perry Mason was in its day. The TV series starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale ran from 1957 to 1966, was broadcast in 58 countries, and earned several Emmy nominations and awards. A TV station in Portland, Oregon ran the series and its reruns for 42 straight years.
The run of Perry Mason novels, originally published from 1933 to 1973, were (and continue to be) enormously popular, third on the list of all-time bestselling book series right behind Harry Potter and Goosebumps. (In fact, Perry Mason is the only series in the all-time Top 10 series bestseller list not written for children.)
As a property, we haven’t had any new Perry Mason material since the last made-for-TV movie aired in 1995. And so you want to reboot a property like that in 2020? A property with such a long history? A new incarnation of a franchise with a high amount of name recognition for people stuck at home in front of their televisions looking for something new, yet also a “sure thing” property? Good luck with that.
So here we are with HBO’s Perry Mason, a reboot, set in 1932 Los Angeles (not in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the original TV show was produced), with graphic violence, nudity, and F-words galore. This is not your grandfather’s Perry Mason. But were you really expecting it to be? C’mon, this is HBO after all, the premium cable channel that gave us Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, Rome, etc.
But let’s do a little more research here. The creators of the show (and writers for half the episodes) are Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald. Jones, a playwright, television writer, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, previously worked on TV series Weeds (Showtime), Friday Night Lights (NBC), and Boardwalk Empire (HBO). Fitzgerald, a two-time nominee for Writers Guild of America Awards, also worked on Weeds and Friday Night Lights. When you know your writers, you have a good idea what you’re getting into.
Now that we know that, let’s (finally) take a look at Perry Mason (2020), which begins with Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys, The Americans), not as a lawyer, but a private investigator who looks like he hasn’t shaved or bathed in a week, wearing a leather jacket and hat he probably wore to bed the night before, and maybe the night before that. (The role was originally intended for Robert Downey Jr., one of the show’s executive producers, who had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.)
Mason regularly works for attorney Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow), a man whose best work is clearly behind him; he just doesn’t recognize it.
Also working for E.B. is secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance), but we’ll soon see that she’s the one keeping this law practice afloat.
Mason is suffering from what we would today call PTSD after serving as a soldier in WWI. He also has a failed marriage, a son who lives with his mother, and a broken-down farm situated directly across from a small airfield where his lover/sex partner Lupe (Veronica Falcón) works as a pilot.
The plot lines get a little complicated, but the primary story is this: E.B. assigns Mason to investigate the mysterious kidnapping and death of Charlie Dodson, the one-year-old son of middle-class couple Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), both of whom Mason suspects are not telling him everything they know. Two LAPD detectives, Joe Ennis (Andrew Howard) and Gene Holcomb (Eric Lange) are also investigating the case, usually at odds with Mason. Although he’s not assigned to the Dodson investigation, an African American beat cop named Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) discovers what might be an important clue.
Meanwhile, evangelical preacher/faith healer Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany) of the Radiant Assembly of God becomes involved in the plight of the Dodson family.
These are the basics. For an eight-episode series, Perry Mason contains several moving parts, most of which move smoothly and efficiently. While the Charlie Dodson story is front-and-center, other plot threads blend and merge, all leading not only to the resolution of the crime(s), but also to provide a satisfying origin story for Mason. Even those who haven’t read any of the books or watched a single episode of the TV show know that Mason is not going to remain a detective for very long. It’s just a matter of how that happens. Fans who are well familiar with the original books and shows may scoff at the route the writers take going from Point A to B to C, but these transitions are generally handled well, thanks in large part to some terrific actors.
As Mason, Matthew Rhys looks a bit like Bob Dylan from the mid-1970s. He has the same look of fierce intelligence mixed with inner pain and turmoil like a barrel of gunpowder searching for a match. He’s quick-thinking, analytical, far too smart and savvy to remain a PI on call for an aging lawyer. In one episode the writers spend considerable time flashing back to Mason’s WWI experiences, perhaps too much time. These scenes, and those pleading with his ex-wife to allow him to visit his son, help us understand Mason’s character, yet go on a bit too long and too often. Mason’s relationship with Lupe (whose character I wish had been developed more) seems to exist only to serve one particular plot point (besides sex), which I will not reveal, but becomes rather tiresome.
Yet despite these quibbles, Rhys is fantastic in developing Mason’s character. If there’s a fault in his performance, it isn’t when Mason finally steps in front of a jury, showing us he’s in way over his head. It occurs when Rhys gets too hysterical too frequently with the frustrations of the case. Perhaps this is the writers’ way of showing where Mason comes from, a volatile, outraged-at-injustice lawyer who’s eventually going to become the cool customer some of us remember from the novels and TV shows. Still, this is far from a deal-breaker.
Juliet Rylance gives Della Street layers of depth and intelligence as she does the essential work of keeping E.B.’s office from going under as well as being an exceptional judge of character. She’s driven, and possessing as much knowledge of the law as most attorneys, is every bit Mason’s equal.
Perry Mason displays two strokes of genius. The first is in the casting of John Lithgow as E.B. Jonathan. Lithgow has impressed audiences and critics for decades, and his powers are on full display here. He presents E.B. as a man who was once one of the finest, most respected lawyers in LA, a reputation he’s been riding on for a long time. Although his skills have diminished, Della has covered for him so well that he doesn’t realize how far he’s fallen. He slings orders around the office as if he’s still an energetic young lawyer, expecting the same level of respect he was once given, but hasn’t earned in years. Lithgow perfectly conveys E.B.’s self-realization as the Dodson case progresses. Each hurdle gets a little harder to clear, and as he begins to understand his limitations and age, Lithgow sells it without becoming maudlin or pathetic. It’s a tremendous performance.
Equally brilliant is the character of Paul Drake. The writers could easily have transitioned Mason’s leg man Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) as a Paul Drake type, but they have other plans for him. Making Drake a beat cop who knows the streets, the writers have added an essential element to the story. Casting an African American actor for a role set during the Great Depression also presents Drake as an outsider, setting up some of the show’s best moments and conflicts. And Chris Chalk is terrific in the role.
Even those who dismiss the show praise it for its period detail. I wasn’t around in the 1930s, but I’ve seen plenty of photos, movies, and newsreels from the era, and based on that, the series looks tremendous. In the photo above (shared with me by my good friend Bill Selby), just look at the detail in period dress, signage, props, storefront, and the building reflected in the window. I’m sure there’s someone out there that might say something like, “That Hires Root Beer sign didn’t appear until 1936,” or some such anachronism, but it certainly looks authentic. I feel like I’m in 1932.
One of the elements of believability that perhaps doesn’t get adequate recognition is the show’s cinematography and lighting. Many critics have pointed out (some dismissively) the show’s noirish look and feel, which is unmistakable, especially during some of Mason’s late night investigations, but the daytime scenes are equally remarkable. The courthouse scenes, in particular, are filled with searching beams of light shining through towering windows. Like Mason’s search for truth itself, these illuminations resemble the lighting you often see in period photographs, revealing previously unseen aspects of these characters, to say nothing of the period clothing, hairstyles, furniture, etc. You’d swear you’ve stepped into a time machine and landed in a 1932 courtroom. But the amazing cinematography isn’t limited to the halls of justice. It’s everywhere.
We must also recognize that Los Angeles itself is one of the show’s most notable characters. Perry Mason’s LA, as reviewer Jeffrey Kauffman states, exudes a “sordid, even smarmy, ambience emphasizing a certain degree of moral turpitude that might be as much Eugene O’Neill as it is film noir.” The city provides the perfect setting, a place as mysterious and unknowable as the show’s byzantine plot. A variety of social classes and ethnicities are on display in the midst of the Great Depression, all of them giving rise to voices that never feel forced, all trying to find hope in a city that seems to offer it, but is reluctant to deliver.
If this review of HBO’s Perry Mason makes you feel that, “No, this doesn’t sound like my Perry Mason at all,” you’re right. It’s not. The series contains sex, profanity, and horrific moments you’d never experience from the original show. You may certainly feel disappointed that the first season ends the way it does, that these characters are too gritty, and that the familiar Fred Steiner theme makes only the briefest appearance. This 2020 incarnation may not adhere to your memories of any of the previous versions. Yet if you can put at least some of those things aside, you may discover that Perry Mason is an imperfect, yet compelling television series loaded with talent that shines brilliantly, even in the darkened areas of 1932 Los Angeles.
Perry Mason: The Complete First Season is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.