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‘Perry Mason’ Is the Dark Origin Story We Didn’t Need

The beloved, virtuous lawyer was once a drunken, tormented cynic? That’s the case made by this new HBO series, which creates a cool noir-ish mood but reinvents its main character in ways that are intriguing but also predictable.

What has always been appealing about Perry Mason is that he’s perfect. In a world of crooked cops and shady lawyers — both on screen and off — this stoic L.A. defense attorney is a beacon of unerring virtue and no-nonsense efficiency. As played by Raymond Burr on the TV show that ran from 1957 to 1966, Mason didn’t just prove his clients’ innocence — he unfailingly figured out who did the crime, usually getting that rotten individual to confess by the end of the hour-long episode. Life lets you down over and over again, but Mason never did — outside of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch (who was more of a warm father figure), he may be the one lawyer who has best represented our collective hope that reason and logic can keep the unjustly accused from being locked away for life. 

But what the new Perry Mason series presupposes is, What if he wasn’t always so perfect? This ambitious but disappointing HBO drama, which premieres Sunday night, is the latest dark origin story that digs into the years before we knew an iconic character, showing how he got there. You never saw Mason dropping F-bombs, fighting off traumatic war memories and drinking himself silly … until now. How we’ve lived all these years without this chapter of the Perry Mason saga, I’ll never know.

Set in the early 1930s in L.A. — the era of Prohibition, an ascendant film business and fedoras atop every man’s head — this eight-part series stars Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason, a two-bit private investigator taking sleazy photos of adulterous relationships and working for the past-his-prime defense lawyer E.B. (John Lithgow). Show creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald have populated Perry Mason with rich atmosphere and evocative characters, including E.B.’s hyper-competent secretary Della (Juliet Rylance) and Mason’s tough-as-nails partner Pete (Shea Whigham). We’re in the land of noir: Interiors are always thick with shadows and cigarette smoke, and everybody evinces a crusty exterior to protect themselves from a pitiless world that’ll break your heart if you let down your guard.

Going nowhere fast — his wife and young son have left him, and he’s scarred from seeing the worst of humanity during the Great War — Mason is brought in to investigate the savage killing of a newborn whose eyes were sewn open as part of what appears to be a kidnapping gone terribly wrong. The boy’s parents — Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) — are bereft, but soon suspicion turns to the mother, who was secretly engaged in an affair with a man who helped swipe the child. Emily swears she knew nothing about the kidnapping, but the slimy district attorney, Barnes (Stephen Root), sees the case as a way to jumpstart his mayoral campaign. Only Mason can save Emily from being hung, which will mean navigating the city’s corrupt police force and reaching out to a cowed Black policeman, name of Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who knows more about the case than he’s letting on.

If you’re a fan of Perry Mason, who was created by novelist Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s and then was adapted for radio and later the Burr television series, you will recognize some of those supporting characters’ names, and indeed part of the HBO series’ enjoyment stems from watching those individuals become increasingly more important to the storyline. 

In a lot of ways, the eight hours required to watch this Perry Mason is merely table-setting for what, ultimately, might become a smart, engaging future series now that all the key relationships are established. But judged on its own merits, Perry Mason is stylish, well-acted and yet strangely uninvolving. I’m generally fond of the old show — and the subsequent TV movies Burr made in the 1980s and 1990s — but I’m not sure how Perry Mason-y any of this actually is. The series’ main selling point is that, eventually, this drunken wretch is going to become the sterling Perry Mason we’ve always known. But the road to that destination isn’t really worth it.

Rhys, fresh off his Emmy win for The Americans, doesn’t try to replicate Burr’s booming-voice righteousness. Instead, he digs into the show’s studied pessimism, giving us a scruffy Mason who’s been kicked around. Perry Mason takes place about five years before Chinatown, another hardboiled L.A. noir, and you can see some of Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Mason: They’re both ostensibly good men who have lost their idealism, or have at least tried to tell themselves that they don’t care about anything anymore. But like Chinatown, Perry Mason will present its antihero with a case that might restore his moral compass — not without risking considerable peril, though. As beaten down as Mason is at the beginning — no matter how many bitter quips he delivers — we never doubt his capacity to redeem himself, and Rhys’ square-jawed decency makes the character’s slow transformation appropriately stirring. 

But as Perry Mason’s gruesome central murder suggests, the series is determined to strip away the character’s network-TV staidness for a more brutal, premium-cable worldview. Not only is Perry Mason no longer family-friendly with his swearing and screwing, but his 1930s L.A. is rife with depravity and graphic violence. (The carnage Mason endured on the battlefield has followed him back to Southern California.) The show’s scope is also far more expansive than the old Burr program, aspiring to give us a sweeping socioeconomic portrait of a metropolis coming into its own. 

A crucial subplot concerns a popular local evangelical church, run by Tatiana Maslany’s true-believer Sister Alice and her calculating mother Birdy (Lili Taylor), that takes up Emily’s cause. But they may be as shady as every other institution in Perry Mason — which is to say nothing of the period’s ugly sexism and racism, which Della and Drake separately must confront. This may be the City of Angels, but it has few heroes. It badly needs a Perry Mason.

On the one hand, the series’ focus on L.A.’s unsavory side and its main character’s demons is a nice counterbalance to the squeaky-clean image we have of uncomplicated mid-century fictional characters like Perry Mason, who are so morally upstanding that they barely register as relatable. To become a tireless crusader for justice, the show argues, Mason first had to crawl through the gutter. That’s a novel idea, as is Perry Mason’s insistence on pushing back against the rosy notion that there was ever a “good old days.” (The show’s cool outfits and sharp Art Deco décor can barely mask the small-mindedness and bigotry that envelop the city’s denizens.) At a moment in time when our nation is reexamining its shameful history of systemic inequality, Perry Mason offers little in the way of nostalgic escapism. Venal district attorneys, thuggish cops, opportunistic religious leaders, a sensation-driven media: There’s nothing sentimental about this bygone L.A. 

The thing is, if Perry Mason is able to create a mood, it’s not nearly as good at crafting a story. Mason’s attempts to clear Emily’s name lead to a fairly sleepy whodunit plot, and the twists and red herrings aren’t especially clever. And while it’s stacked with expert performances — particularly Rylance, who’s terrific as the unstoppable Della — the series ultimately feels like a standard detective show that morphs into a so-so courtroom drama. For Perry Mason diehards, there are a couple cheeky revisions to the old show’s formula — turns out, it’s actually really hard to wring a confession from someone on the stand — but in trying to tell this epic tale of an L.A. in turmoil, the man himself becomes almost a side character in his own story.

Modern audiences are probably too sophisticated for the old Perry Mason — the stridently noble straight-arrow who cracked the case every single time without ever mussing his hair — but Rhys’ younger, disillusioned version is its own kind of archetype. Slouching toward decency, the character is just one more lost soul, a cockeyed optimist who wants to stop finding answers at the bottom of a bottle. He’s flawed and tormented, with his bruised heart on his sleeve, in precisely the ways these sorts of antiheroes always are.

With the horrible images of bad cops in the news right now, it’s right to criticize television’s track record of virtuous law-enforcement good guys, privileging their perspective over others’. But for me, Perry Mason always symbolized a hope that, if you’re lucky, you can find someone who genuinely believes in truth and justice — the one good apple, if you will, in the bunch. What’s ironic, then, about this new Perry Mason is that it almost suggests that we shouldn’t rely on just Perry Mason — which, if you’re a fan of the 1950s show, makes the series’ final scenes especially effective, even if it is the umpteenth variation of the clichéd “And this is how the team came together” reveal. It takes a group of people working together to change the world — Perry Mason never did it alone. And as our antihero will discover, it will probably require folks who don’t look much like him for us to ever get that happy ending.