I don’t blame you if you’re sick of gritty reboots. For years now, Hollywood has relied on a formula so successful that it’s become ubiquitous: Take a well-known character or franchise and reimagine it as darker, bloodier, and bleaker. Studios have done it so many times that when I heard HBO was rebooting Perry Mason, a show I used to sit down and watch with my grandma alongside Matlock and Murder She Wrote, I just rolled my eyes.
The Perry Mason reboot is certainly gritty. The season-long mystery involves the kidnapping and murder of a child. Its Depression-era Los Angeles is a gloomy place, populated by destitute World War I veterans, sensationalist reporters, street preachers ministering to the penniless, and heroin-addicted sex workers. The title character, played by Matthew Rhys, is an alcoholic divorcé who lives on a crumbling dairy farm and takes compromising photos of celebrities to make ends meet, until he is offered a gig as an investigator for a defense attorney. My colleague Sophie Gilbert found it too dark, “of a piece with other efforts to ‘update’ classic characters by amping up the edginess and the grotesquerie.”
What Perry Mason portrays in the most dismal light, however, is law enforcement and the criminal-justice system. The cops in Perry Mason are corrupt. They are racist. They take bribes, torture suspects, intentionally arrest the wrong people, falsify evidence, and are generally indifferent to solving crimes as long as they find someone to pin them on. L.A. District Attorney Maynard Barnes, played by Stephen Root, withholds evidence, employs coercion, and attempts to prosecute cases in the media by appealing to the public’s prejudices. He also betrays at least some awareness of police using extralegal methods. “If you walk out of that door and you think for one second that you are entering into a nation of laws, you are a complete fucking idiot,” Mason declares in the fifth episode.