The Conundrum of a New Perry Mason
A fresh HBO adaptation imbues the classic character with unnecessary darkness and biographical trauma, when what’s most relevant about him has been there all along.
There comes a moment late in HBO’s new eight-part reconception of the legal drama Perry Mason when Matthew Rhys’s character feels almost like the Mason of old, the most beloved defense attorney in American television. Early episodes featured a virtual master class in mopery, in which Rhys’s Mason—not yet an attorney—slumped his way through different levels of professional and personal dejection, with egg on his tie and a hangdog expression. But then, thanks to a confluence of circumstances and the ingenuity of his plucky associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), he finds himself in court, cross-examining a corrupt cop. Mason’s hair is neatly brilliantined; his face is shaved; his courtroom patter is impeccable. He shreds the witness to pieces. And then the scene—a fantasy, it turns out—is punctured by a district attorney who’s actually helping Mason, now a newbie lawyer, prepare for a cross-examination the following day. “No one ever confesses on the stand,” the DA says, rolling his eyes at Mason’s rueful naïveté.
Which is funny, because in the old Perry Mason (in particular, the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr), that’s all witnesses ever did. Strung up on moral and intellectual fishhooks by the esteemed attorney, they inevitably sang like canaries to the entire courtroom. But that was then; people tend to like prestige crime dramas with a little more cynicism these days. The Perry Mason of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, an avatar of truth, justice, and decency in the Arthurian mold, might feel about as contemporary as Adam West’s Batman, fake-running through a cityscape in baggy gray Lycra after a villain so unmenacing, he had pancake makeup covering up his mustache.
But did they really have to edge up Perry Mason? Wasn’t there IP lying around for someone more naturally predisposed to darkness, like, say, Twilight Sparkle, or even Santa? The first episode of the new Perry Mason, which debuted Sunday on HBO to a surprisingly robust 1.7 million viewers, presents a strikingly grim and frequently grotesque reimagining of Gardner’s character, whom no less than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once cited as her inspiration for becoming a lawyer. In the first few scenes alone, a baby’s corpse is recovered with its eyes stitched open, a Fatty Arbuckle–esque movie star is caught indulging in sitophilia (complete with squishily realistic sound effects and generously full-frontal male nudity), and Mason picks up a clean tie … from a body in the morgue (“I got a domestic stabbing with a three-piece if you want,” the attendant offers).
The whole thing, at first, feels needlessly bleak. Gardner famously made his hero so unknowable that nearly the only established fact in his biography is that he’s a Leo. Perry Mason, the first season of which is clearly modeled after a superhero origin story, invents an elaborate backstory out of whole cloth for the character, and grounds it, naturally, in trauma. Rhys’s Mason fought during the Great War in France, where he was involved in a shadowy event that led to disgrace by military tribunal. (The show briefly re-creates chaotic battlefield scenes, all zipping bullets and sludgy trenches, for no apparent reason other than to flex its $75 million budget.) By 1932, living in Los Angeles (which is relying on the entertainment industry to stave off the Great Depression), Mason is an alcoholic, a deadbeat dad, and an occasional dairy farmer trying to keep the bailiffs away from his family’s plot of land. For his day job, he works as a private investigator for an avuncular attorney, E. B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), whose practice is in financial trouble and whose favorite word is boyo.
The question is: Why go so dark? The first few episodes wallow so thickly in the mire of human depravity that they’re less classic CBS courtroom procedural, more True Detective (Nic Pizzolatto, who created the latter show, was involved in the early development of Perry Mason with Robert Downey Jr., a producer on the series and its first intended star). If the original TV adaptation of Perry Mason took a decorous approach to noir, limiting murders to one an episode and only briefly displaying dead bodies, this update (as per HBO norms) is much more generous with the gore. In the morgue, an assistant casually wipes pools of blood around a metal table. Corpses are rendered in unsettlingly realistic detail, so that you can see the exact place where a bullet imploded a man’s grinning skull. When Mason painstakingly pulls a loop of sewing thread out of a dead baby’s eye socket, the look on Rhys’s face underlines how obscene the moment feels to the viewer.
For much of its debut eight episodes, Perry Mason feels of a piece with other efforts to “update” classic characters by amping up the edginess and the grotesquerie. The BBC’s recent adaptations of Agatha Christie novels abandoned the genteel chintz-and-cucumber-sandwiches vibe of classic Christie in favor of fetid skeevery and outlandish reinvention. (Hercule Poirot, played in one recent outing by John Malkovich, was revealed to have once been a priest who witnessed his entire congregation get murdered during World War I.) With the dour pallor of Zack Snyder superhero movies and the bleak brutality of Lars von Trier, these kinds of stylistic attempts to modernize existing intellectual property tend to miss that what’s most current about beloved crime fiction has actually been there all along.
In the case of Perry Mason, the character is a kind of superhero, working not in consort with law enforcement but against the corrupt cops of the Los Angeles Police Department. Long before Cops inflated police officers into valiant protectors of public safety, and before Law & Order reimagined defense attorneys as sneering, avaricious twisters of truth, Perry Mason stood for the idea that people could be wrongly accused of crimes by a fractured legal system more concerned with closing cases than upholding justice. And he accepted shades of gray within his work, rather than imposing clear delineations between heroes and villains. “I’m a paid gladiator,” Mason tells Della in the first Perry Mason novel, 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws. “I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out.”
The idea that flawed people have as much right to a fair and balanced legal system as the morally unimpeachable is still novel enough, at this particular moment, to feel radical. As is the notion that cops—the people charged and empowered with upholding the law—can be as flawed and corruptible as anyone else. Structurally, the new Perry Mason seems to recognize this. Its portrayal of the LAPD is a sordid one, in which the police have become a mafioso-like organization willing to do anything for the highest bidder. There are occasional exceptions—Chris Chalk plays Paul Drake, the downtown district’s lone black officer, who’s shown defusing violence in one scene that feels strikingly resonant—but for the most part, rot has pervaded the institution. (Chalk, it’s worth noting, brings complexity to a character who could otherwise fit easily into a trope.)
It’s no coincidence that the series seems to find its stride in the final four episodes, when the focus turns to the courtroom. The first Perry Mason series grounded itself in a rigid formula, which procedurals have mimicked to some success ever since. Inevitably, a crime is committed, a client is introduced, and the second half of each episode is preoccupied with a trial, during which Mason manages not only to successfully defend his client but also to implicate the person who’s actually guilty. Each case is satisfyingly set up, complicated, and concluded in less than an hour. The new Perry Mason, though, abandons one formulaic genre for another, in this case the saggy, ponderous, narratively inert eight-episode prestige drama. The entire season is occupied with a single case: the murder of a kidnapped baby and the trial of that baby’s mother, Emily Dodson (played by Gayle Rankin).
So much attention is paid to establishing Mason as a complicated and sufficiently pained male protagonist (and Rhys, to his credit, has a greater range with watchable mournfulness than anyone else on television) that the other elements of the story can get lost. A subplot involves Sister Alice (played by Tatiana Maslany), the charismatic figurehead of a cultlike evangelical church who involves herself in Emily’s case, but the series forgets to poke at the actually interesting parts of the character. The runaway success of a grifter church getting rich during an economic meltdown is full of narrative potential, but without a thematic anchor, the group becomes just a spotty side concern in Mason’s investigation.
The stylistic self-indulgence and narrative nebulousness are more of a shame because when Mason finally finds himself in court, all the pieces of the show fall into place. It’s easy to see what the reboot could be in a second or third season, attached to the intrigue of a few concisely constructed mysteries and a team of investigative outcasts less concerned with what’s legal than what’s right. “You want to know things, Mr. Mason,” a character tells the lawyer late in the show. “You want to find things out and prove things. What comfort has that ever given you? What peace?” For fans of Mason though, whether the one from Gardner’s novels or Burr’s sturdy, black-and-white screen version, that investigation is everything. In a world clouded with obfuscation and inescapable noise, a simple commitment to truth and justice can be a powerful thing.