There are several reasons why HBO‘s gorgeously well-made, expansively imagined and deeply immersive new “Perry Mason” has critics casting around for synonyms of “timely.” Its twisted tale of gruesome and occasionally graphic baby-murder (the show’s dead-body modelmakers deserve some sort of award for grotesque, gross-out detail) touches on institutional corruption and police brutality, on racism and religious hypocrisy, on the exploitation of the marginalized, the stigmatization of homosexuality and the subjugation of women. At one point a vicious cop actually kills a man by standing on his neck. At another, an African-American officer concludes he must choose between “Black and blue.” Parallels with recent events and current hot-button social topics are impossible to ignore — but honestly, was there a single week in the last decade or so of American life when these issues, brought to light in however glossily fictionalized a form, would not have hit uncomfortably close to home? And still, there is another, less obvious yet perhaps more interesting way in which “Perry Mason” speaks to our current moment: by telling a more complex, ambivalent, messier story, that undermines the simplistic facade of moral rectitude and stiffly white, patriarchal values that the name Perry Mason might have stood for before, it feels like it’s pulling down a statue.
Any statue to Perry Mason, would undoubtedly be cast in form of Raymond Burr, whose initial take on Erle Stanley Gardner‘s crusading defense lawyer ran for 271 episodes between 1957 and 1966. But iconic though Burr’s Mason undoubtedly is, as a character he was little more than a cipher, a brilliant, upstanding, trustworthy blank whose clients were always innocent and who (nearly) always won their acquittal. This series’ creators, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald (who previously worked together on “Weeds” and “Friday Night Lights“), aided by a terrific Matthew Rhys wearing an expression so perfectly balanced between fearfulness, fragility, and ferocity that it wouldn’t look wrong on a whipped dog, color in that blank. Diehard old-school Perry Mason fans — I guess there must be some of those? — might not like how murky the colors get, but as a slow-burn origin story crisply attuned to the sensibilities of today, it’s darkly dazzling.
It’s early 1932 and Perry Mason (Rhys) is a scraping a sleazy living as a private eye, often hired by blustery attorney EB Jonathan (John Lithgow) and his flinty associate Della Street (Juliet Rylance), alongside equally grizzled fellow PI Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham). Mason’s home, a small dairy farm, is under threat of foreclosure, he drinks too much, has an offbeat sexual relationship with local pilot Lupe (Veronica Falcón, let’s take a moment to enjoy the fact that she is older than him and that’s NBD) and has low-level PTSD from his time at the front in WWI.
Here, already, there’s an unusual commitment by the writers to the sheer level of un-heroic moral compromise they’re willing to work into Mason’s past: When episode 2 begins with a flashback to the war — incidentally an astonishingly expensive-looking few minutes of footage complete with “1917“-style running-across-exploding-minefields and “Paths of Glory“-esque tracking-through-the-trenches — we are shown, in bloody detail, the reason for his subsequent dishonorable discharge. When was the last time the square-jawed hero of a law-and-order show had one of those?
Professionally, things start to turn around for Mason when Jonathan is handed the biggest case in town. A kidnapped baby, the child of Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and an exceptional Gayle Rankin) was found dead on LA’s Angels Flight funicular after the ransom had been paid. Emily is a member of a cult-like church led by charismatic faith-healer Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her shrewd, ruthless mother (Lily Taylor), and patronized by millionaire businessman Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) who is paying Jonathan to handle the case. But when a secondary crime scene is discovered by Black police officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk, also a standout) his conclusions, which would be inconvenient for the case the DA’s prosecutor Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) wishes to build, are disputed by the investigating detectives, and he’s ordered to change his report.
With so many characters and side-plots to introduce, the show does take a while to reveal itself. And in director Tim Van Patten‘s careful hands, it is never the paciest of stories, indeed part of its particular strength is that it will take the time sometimes just to watch John Lithgow’s EB stare absently out of a window. But by about episode 3 it hits its stride, and you realize that as splashy as the murder mystery hook might be, it is not the plot that is the puzzle here, it is the people. There is a jigsaw-player’s pleasure in watching how their scattered, frayed edges will eventually fit together, how they will slowly reconfigure across the eight episodes into a stable new status quo.
That of course relies on exceptional performances and “Perry Mason” delivers right across the cast. As an example: Shea Whigham, wearing what by now must surely be one the many fedoras he personally owns and just brings to set to save time, proves invaluable in every single one of his crackly scenes. His Pete Strickland doesn’t feel like a character created but found, like someone went back in time and hung out on a street corner till this laid-back, half-lidded layabout with a quick fist, a jaded eye, and a foul mouth just shambled past. Indeed, for lovers of classic film noir style (which just drips from every luscious, immaculately dressed and shot scene) there are conversations between Strickland and Mason, not looking at each other, but spitting hardboiled observations out of the corners of their mouths like tobacco juice, that are a thrill just for the faces, the hats, the sense of doom-laden cynical LA rot.
With such a broad, heavily populated canvas to work with, things get lost. Mason’s semi-vocational journey from washed-up private dick to dogged defense attorney — which some would say should be at the heart of this origin story — is reduced to a quickly forged document and a hasty trainee-lawyerin’ montage. Some side characters, such as coroner Virgil (Jefferson Mays) are brilliantly drawn; others, like the Chinese brothel keepers and arguably even the arch-villains themselves, are only sketched in. But the show’s missteps are forgivable, a factor of its massive, epoch-encompassing ambitions, as it becomes less a courtroom procedural than a sprawling, deliciously noirish exhumation of an entire city at a moment of tectonic social change. With its deliberate nods to real-life headline stories like Aimee Semple McPherson’s ministry, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, shady urban development schemes, and even studio-era Hollywood sex scandals, “Perry Mason” often feels not so much classic TV drama as work of alternate history. You can almost imagine a timeline in which Raymond Burr’s Mason becomes the idealized 1950s TV version of Rhys’ character here, in the same way, that the “Dragnet“-esque “Badge of Honor” spruced up and heroized the morally dank police officers of “LA Confidential.”
And so you can look at Della fighting to be acknowledged as an equal, at Officer Drake trying to retain his dignity as a Black man and his status as a police officer, at Mason’s remorse over using another character’s homosexuality as an insult and dismiss this “Perry Mason” as just some sort of exercise in wokeness. Or you can look at what it’s really doing, which is using the lens of this familiar, rather anodyne IP to refocus on stories that would actually have been happening in L.A. in the first half of the 20th century, but that were selectively de-prioritized and pushed out of the frame by subsequent storytelling traditions. Which perhaps prompts one final question: if this “Perry Mason” is all this, is it Perry Mason at all? And the only answer is: I don’t care. It is now. [A-]