HBO’s version of “Perry Mason” is closer to “Boardwalk Empire” or “L.A. Confidential” than what fans of the Raymond Burr hit may be expecting. The most popular version of the Erle Stanley Gardner character was played by Raymond Burr from 1957 to 1966 on CBS, forever changing the television courtroom drama. If you’re surprised that HBO and a remarkable ensemble would invest in a remake of what was basically a case-of-the-week show, you should know that they really haven’t. By the end, it’s easier to see how this chapter from the early life of the famous attorney ties together with what we know of the character from Gardner and even Burr, but this is a very different show, one that focuses on one case for eight episodes and what that case unearths about corrupt institutions of religion, law, and policing in the early 1930s in Los Angeles. It is a gorgeous show in terms of production design and the cast is strong from top to bottom, but writers Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald struggle to find a story worth investing in for at least the first half of the eight-episode season. The back half is much stronger, and the performances elevate the production throughout, but with attention spans diminished by the state of the world in 2020, “Perry Mason” could struggle to hold viewers this summer. Then again, there’s not much else to watch.
“Perry Mason” opens with a tense sequence in which two parents are negotiating the hand-off a suitcase of money for their kidnapped baby. When they get to their child, they discover he’s dead, his eyes sewn shut. A murdered baby makes headlines in any era, but the case becomes a major talking point in Los Angeles in the early ‘30s, and a private investigator named Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) ends up helping the attorney who knows the parents, a man named E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). As he digs into the case with the help of E.B.’s assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance of “The Knick”) and his own partner-in-investigating Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), Mason discovers layers of questionable police tactics and corrupt officials blocking his way. A Black police officer who discovers a bloody crime scene related to the kidnapping named Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) gets involved in the case, and a whole lot of roads lead back to a religious group led by the charismatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her mother Birdy (Lili Taylor).
This iteration of Mason is straight out of the noir handbook and not just in its fashion sense and moody lighting. Hard-drinking, barely-sleeping, traumatized from his time in World War I, Rhys plays Mason as a man being eaten alive by the injustices around him. He may drown it in a bottle of whiskey or blow it off with a witty aside, but he cares about justice more than most people, and that’s what drives him. Rhys perfectly balances the world-weariness of Mason with a passionate sense of right and wrong. And he’s balanced well by just about everyone around him. From top to bottom, the casting here is above par. Every time it feels like Rhys is running away with it as a solo vehicle, someone else pops up to match him, including great work from Whigham, Rylance, and Chalk. The religious subplot sometimes feels a little half-baked and leaves Taylor and Maslany with thinner characters than they deserve, even if these scenes do allow for some of the strongest production design. A sequence in episode five in which Sister Alice speaks in tongues and tries to cure a man in wheelchair is just visually sumptuous.
And yet it took about that long for me to care about what was happening. Particularly in the first four episodes of the season, the mystery over what happened to this poor child remains at arms-length. “Perry Mason” was originally going to be a Nic Pizzolatto show, but he left it to go back to his “True Detective” for its third season. He may have left, but one can see the “True Detective” model here—a case that’s not as interesting as what it does to the people who solve it—but that’s a tricky thing to pull off. “Perry Mason” eventually got its hooks in me and the inevitable courtroom material is particularly fantastic—Stephen Root as the D.A. doesn’t hurt—but I’m not sure that I would have hung in there for the first four if it wasn’t my job to do so.
So who is the audience for “Perry Mason”? It’s not really fans of the books or CBS series as much as it’s designed to appeal to fans of Prestige TV like “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Americans,” and “True Detective.” Without much competition on the air right now, will the prestige level here be enough to hold audiences if they don’t care about the case at the center of this show? The jury is still out on that one.
Whole season screened for review.