HBO's Perry Mason is filled with great performances, but the story is a mess

  • "The entirety of the HBO version feels like it was made by people — Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald as primary writers, with Tim Van Patten as lead director — who weren’t so much interested in Perry Mason as a character as they were in him as a familiar piece of intellectual property they could use as an excuse to tell a Thirties hard-boiled crime story," says Alan Sepinwall. "Which wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, since the audience with a strong attachment to (Erle Stanley) Gardner’s books and/or (Raymond) Burr’s portrayal must be a very thin slice of HBO’s viewership in 2020. But Jones, Fitzgerald, and their collaborators have thrown out the classic formula for a muddle. This new Perry Mason is filled with great performances (albeit not all of them belonging on the same show). It looks incredible (though also occasionally much more gory than it needs to be). But the story’s a mess — at once convoluted and a bit too dull to fill eight hours — and the idea of giving Mason the origin story he never had ultimately proves more trouble than it’s worth."


    • Perry Mason couldn't be more relevant with its critical look at the justice system: "While shows that have effectively and perhaps unknowingly acted as pro-police propaganda for years reckon with their legacy and debate how to move forward, Perry Mason couldn’t be returning at a better time," says Samantha Nelson. "The HBO reboot, which starts its eight-episode season on Sunday, June 21, draws on film noir and the legacy of the original show to take a critical look at the American justice system, and how it often fails the most vulnerable citizens. In the original TV series, Raymond Burr played the title character, a Los Angeles criminal-defense attorney and investigator who spent each hour-long episode figuring out who really committed the murder his client had been accused of. HBO’s series is effectively a prequel, with The Americans star Matthew Rhys playing Perry as a fairly traditional noir protagonist — a downtrodden private eye with a strong sense of justice and a weak sense of self-preservation. Set in 1932 Los Angeles, the show follows Perry’s efforts to solve the case of a kidnapped and murdered infant. The investigation puts him at odds with entrenched political interests, a corrupt and murderous police force, and a prosecutor more interested in victory than truth. Showrunners Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, who previously worked together on Friday Night Lights and Weeds, have put together a fantastic slow-burn mystery brought to life by a superb cast."
    • This is the Batman Begins of the Perry Mason franchise: "It’s the Raymond Burr incarnation of Perry Mason that looms largest and that established a formula for legal procedurals that endures to this day. (Fun fact: The original Perry Mason was ushered to the screen by Gail Patrick, the first female executive producer in primetime TV.)," says Jen Chaney. "The 2020 Perry Mason, which casts Matthew Rhys in the titular role, is not that Perry Mason. Borrowing from the pulp fiction-y aspects of Gardner’s original stories while spinning its own yarn, it is more like a Perry Mason origin story, the Batman Begins of this particular franchise. Unlike Burr’s Perry Mason, Rhys’s is messy, unethical, and for most of this eight-episode season, a private detective. He only transforms into the defense attorney he is famous for being toward the end of the season, when the kidnapping and murder case that gives Perry Mason its narrative spine inches closer toward resolution. The result, from writers/showrunners Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones and directed by Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire) and Deniz Gamze Erguven (Mustang), is a simultaneously gorgeous, gritty, and sometimes downright gory period piece filled with fine performances, but also overloaded a little with B and C storylines that could have been streamlined or cut. The excess fat in Perry Mason is a flaw, but not enough of one to detract from what is, overall, a fine and absorbing season of television."
    • Perry Mason gets what he’s always lacked — a personality: "Perry Mason, the defense attorney hero of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legal thrillers (which have sold some 300 million copies since first debuting in 1933), has been ripe for a remake for a long time," says Hank Stuever. "After some movie adaptations and a long-running radio serial, it was the TV version, which premiered in 1957 and starred Raymond Burr, that determined what our courtroom dramas would look like for decades to come. From avid armchair detectives to Supreme Court justices, everyone loves Perry Mason, right? But what did we ever really know about the guy, other than he almost always won his cases? Gardner, who died in 1970, wasn’t inclined to give Perry much of a backstory — believing, perhaps, that too much personality interfered with the formula. Perry was forever right and could always dig up the evidence to prove his case at the last minute. He’s a classic character, with all the dimension of cardboard. That’s why Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald’s superb new Perry Mason, an eight-episode series premiering Sunday on HBO, is the perfect lesson in how to update an icon, honoring the character by giving him the emotional depth and complexity that he previously never had."
    • Perry Mason didn't need to feature nudity, sex and the N-word: "The series, which ultimately feels like the very long pilot for what could make a fine series yet to come, is easily enjoyable, nicely played and smartly designed, with some well-executed big set pieces; it is also occasionally unpleasant, a little nutty toward the end and too long and too busy for the material," says Robert Lloyd. "By the time the last loose threads are tied, mostly in expected knots, you may find your emotional investment has dwindled considerably, or even that, among its many sidestreams and back stories, you have forgotten what the point was. There is a modicum of HBO Brand Sex ’n’ Nudity, a noticeable lot of cursing — par for the premium cable course, of course, but strictly speaking, unnecessary — and, more arresting, the N word, once from a Black character and once from a white one. There are times, to be sure, when its use might be justified, but that does not really apply here — this is just an ephemeral crime show, and no shame in that. The effect is merely to take you out of the scene and into the writers’ room."
    • Perry Mason could've been something really creative, but it's just another period piece: "Perry Mason could have fallen into the HBO tradition of taking a genre staple — the mob story, the Western — and updating it or rethinking its premises," says James Poniewozik. "If the creators, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, were writing it now, maybe they’d have leaned harder and more creatively into its themes of anti-authority and moral corrosion. Instead, like Boardwalk Empire (whose Tim Van Patten directs several episodes and whose Shea Whigham plays Perry’s dirt-digger), this is a straight-up period piece, impeccably detailed, with an unimpeachable cast, but with no real rethinking of the kind of story it’s telling. Why this character? Why this setting? Why this genre? Forget it, Jake; it’s Reboottown."
    • Perry Mason is packed with great acting, but the show works best in the courtroom: "The greatest joy of viewing Perry Mason comes just from having so many amazing performers playing off of each other," says Gwen Ihnat. "Why has it taken this long for (Stephen) Root and (John) Lithgow to face off in a courtroom, sporting three-piece suits and watch chains? Any time Rhys and (Tatiana) Maslany share a space, the screen practically crackles....Shea Whigham is a joy as Mason’s investigative partner, dropping wisecrack after wisecrack against the bleakest of palettes and scenarios. And GLOW’s Gayle Rankin is never less than magnetic as the grieving mother of the lost child. If only the mystery itself was less sordid and convoluted and more riveting; it unwisely runs too far afield from the courtroom action. Executive producer and director of six of the eight episodes Timothy Van Patten appears to be taking another page from his similarly non-nostalgic period piece Boardwalk Empire. In the early 1930s of this Perry Mason, the Depression is in full force, as are racism, sexism, and full-on corruption. Perry Mason is beautifully shot, including the blood-filled scenes, and mostly painted in dark blues and grays fitting for the show’s somber tone that defies its sunny L.A. setting, with artistic camera angles that draw our attention to unsavory moments even when we’d rather look away. It’s riveting to watch even as it’s bumpy to follow."
    • HBO’s take on the character works best when it’s forging its own path: "Unfortunately, as the series progresses, Perry Mason begins to feel more and more like it’s running through a checklist, throwing a bone to the die-hard Perry Mason fans (are there any still out there?) who might be longing for something familiar," says Chris Evangelista. "In the original TV series, lawyer Perry worked with his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake. Those characters appear here, too, but it takes some time for them to fall into their familiar roles."
    • Perry Mason works better than it should: "HBO’s younger and sexier Perry Mason is not about quantity," says Sonia Saraiya. "The season covers just one case in minute detail, from the gory particulars of a kidnapped and murdered baby to the corrupt cops, mysterious church, and sensationalist journalism that rounds out the mystery. Along the way, it shows us how Rhys’s Mason—rumpled, exhausted, and adept at worming his way into rooms he shouldn’t be in—transitions from a freelance investigator with a worthless piece of farmland to a lawyer with his own firm. Strictly speaking, it works better than it should. There’s so much sunk into the production that the world of the show really comes alive, and the mystery is engrossing and unpredictable. The rotten underpinnings of LA’s criminal justice system resonate with what’s on the news today—and in creating a backstory for how Mason meets his investigator Paul Drake, the show finds a way to explore policing and race by casting Drake with a black actor, Chris Chalk. Proto-feminist Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is not just here to be flirted with; she advocates for the women in the story, especially the bereaved mother of the dead child, one Mrs. Dodson (Gayle Rankin). Shea Whigham fulfills his destiny by playing yet another sharp-eyed wiseguy in the American past. And John Lithgow is here too, in full stuffy-old-guy mode, as lawyer E.B. Jonathan."
    • Perry Mason is not overly cheerful, but it’s not entirely cynical either: "It’s to Rhys’ credit that he doesn’t quite work in this environment," says Willa Paskin. "He projects just a little too much decency and eagerness to be a seen-it-all nihilist. His no-place newscaster accent (Rhys is Welsh) sounds as out of place as a viola in a mosh pit. He’s no hangdog California Joe; He sounds like he was born to talk to a jury. And oh right! That’s where the show is headed! The eight-episodes of the series (for now, Perry Mason is a limited series, though you don’t have to be a detective to figure that “limit” is likely to extend beyond one season) map closely onto the formula for one standard Perry Mason episode: half out of court, half in it. As the show more or less transforms in flight, each episode becomes a more fitting showcase for Rhys, an actor who projects square decency even when he’s neither square nor decent. (Even his character in The Americans, a Communist spy who had killed dozens of people, seemed fundamentally nice.) It’s still noir (-ish), but it’s not hardboiled."
    • Perry Mason feels like yet another iteration of what we’ve seen already, elsewhere and often superior: "Rhys, so gifted at allowing sentiment and vulnerability to shine through on The Americans, here feels inhibited by the tautness of the social constraints around Mason, which are drawn painstakingly but not especially interestingly," says Daniel D'Addario. "The show combines a setting we’ve seen before (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, currently airing, takes place in the same milieu, down to the McPherson-aping subplot). Its angle of approach is ganked from two decades’ worth of prestige TV, with a stern and broken man using work as a way of beating down demons. The show is beautiful to look at (when it’s not purposefully ugly) and features great work by Rhys, Chalk, Maslany and Taylor, Rankin, Lithgow, and Juliet Rylance (as do-it-all legal assistant Della Street), and yet gives us little reason to look more deeply. Why revive a title like this only to do with it what’s been done, over the now-tapped-out prestige-TV antihero era, so many times before?"
    • One of the problems with the show is that Perry goes from gumshoe screw-up to lawyer to master of the courtroom nearly overnight: "Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald are purportedly showing us a man’s profound transformation, but there’s mostly only a before and an after," says Matthew Gilbert. "Rhys brings a lot to the character, as usual, but he is trapped, to some extent, by this gap, this uncharted emotional progress. I always like watching Rhys, but I wasn’t always sure the Perry he plays in one scene is fully connected to the Perry he plays in another scene. Until the end of the eight-episode season, when Perry and his team gel into a united front ready to turn trials upside-down, his evolution seems hazy. In that way, the season feels like a long setup, a stretched out pilot episode to establish who’s who; at the very end, I was ready to start the show."
    • Perry Mason generally avoids feeling like an assembly line Cable Anti-Hero: Great Depression Edition: "Much of the credit goes to Rhys, in a role once intended for Robert Downey Jr. A matryoshka doll of repression and discontent on The Americans, he alternates between a similar internalized torment and volcanic bursts of passion (which tend to bring out Rhys' Welshness, not that anybody is likely to complain)," says Daniel Fienberg. "Rhys parries well with a properly tough-as-nails Rylance as a proto-feminist Della, and has interesting chemistry with Veronica Falcón, offering a husky authenticity as an aviator who represents the show's only acknowledgement of L.A.'s Latino culture."
    • Matthew Rhys had a similar feeling with Perry Mason as he had with The Americans: “There were similarities with Philip Jennings from The Americans in that there was a lot of baggage for both characters that I'm drawn to,” he says. “Humanity is, to me personally, infinitely more interesting when you're kind of looking at the cracks and how people deal with them, as opposed to, you know, the underwear on the outside and the capes.”
    • Rhys isn't sure he was a fan of the original Perry Mason: "It was very huge in Britain," he says. "It’s strange, it was one of those shows that you’re incredibly aware of… or that I was very incredibly aware of while going, 'Have I actually watched an episode of it?' It was always something that was on, you were always aware of it. And I had this vague memory that people confess on the stand and that’s about it."
    • Casting Rhys, who has made a specialty of masculine frailty and defect, meant that Perry could go even more tragic:  “You get away with more sadness because you have very, very attractive Matthew Rhys,” says co-showrunner Rolin Jones. “Who doesn’t want to see him brood a little bit, for crying out loud?”

    TOPICS: Perry Mason (2020), HBO, Erle Stanley Gardner, Matthew Rhys, Robert Downey Jr, Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald, Susan Downey

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