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HBO's Perry Mason Dropkicks Countless Copaganda Tropes

The fortuitously-timed prequel series reminds us the system's been rigged for far too long.
  • Matthew Rhys stars in Perry Mason. (HBO)
    Matthew Rhys stars in Perry Mason. (HBO)

    Amid this summer's protests and uprisings against the recent murders, by police, of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, and countless others, fans are reconsidering the copaganda in their TV diets. Some are being forced to make other choices, since Cops and Live PD have both been cancelled. Others are pondering the fact that virtually all TV crime dramas center cops: not the survivors of crime; not the people who commit them, or have been arrested for them (not always the same people, in actuality); and not the overloaded public defenders trying, often futilely, to balance the scales of justice. It's into this societal and media landscape that HBO brings its new take on Perry Mason, which turns out to be great timing, because this show hates cops.

    One might not have said precisely that about the original series (1957-1966, plus a revival series and several TV movies), which was adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner's pulp fiction and was a legal drama revolving around a defense attorney; Mason's clients' charges arose due to sloppy or biased police work, but were nearly always innocent. HBO's version takes the action back to an earlier point in the character's life: it's about to be 1932, and Mason (Matthew Rhys) is not quite making ends meet in the extremely noir profession of Los Angeles PI. Defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) is representing the Dodsons (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), whose baby was just kidnapped, and hires Mason to work the case because no one trusts the LAPD to handle it. It's hard to say more about the plot without giving away the many twists of the story, but it involves such elements as the First World War; the 1932 Olympics; real estate speculation; union-busting; the nascent aviation industry; and Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany), a charismatic preacher who's a barely fictionalized version of Aimee Semple McPherson.

    Originally, this project was to have been a film franchise staring Robert Downey Jr., which could have been interesting if Downey played the character in his understated Zodiac mode as opposed to bringing his manic Sherlock Holmes vibe to it. But over the near-decade it spent in development, it evolved into a TV series, and Rhys was announced as its star last January. Downey is still listed among its many producers, though it was his wife Susan Downey who spoke on behalf of their Team Downey production company at a recent panel at the ATX Festival (which her husband later crashed). Its co-creators are Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald; the former previously worked on Boardwalk Empire, which may be why it has common alumni like Shea Whigham and Gretchen Mol, and while the latter counts Friday Night Lights among his credits, I must caution that Perry Mason doesn't seem to align with a "Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose" ethos.

    One of my few critiques is that it's so satisfying to watch Mason and his crew use antique investigation methods that, when I realized the entire eight-episode season would concern itself with no case other than the Dodsons', I was a little disappointed. I wanted more clients, more ingenious private detective work in the service of more nefarious crimes. But once I resigned myself, I had to concede that the story does build out its complexity in a convincing way that is neither too baroque to follow nor too outlandish to believe, and all while introducing a passel of re-imagined characters that fans of the original TV series and stories will remember and treasure. (As Della Street, E.B.'s assistant, Juliet Rylance may just be playing a slight variation on her Cornelia Robertson from The Knick, but it's fine; she does it well.)

    All that is a tiny quibble. What would be satisfying about Perry Mason if it had come out six months after it was first announced in 2011 but feels especially bracing now is its portrayal of the rot at the heart of the justice system. That policing is racist is not the show's main point; it's set in the '30s, when no sensible person of any race would probably bother to pretend it isn't. But it does re-imagine Paul Drake, Mason's investigator in the original series, as a black beat cop (Chris Chalk). Drake actually gives a shit about following crime-scene evidence and producing accurate reports, for which he's not-so-subtly threatened about "correcting" his records to conform to the official reports the white detectives have agreed upon; there are no black detectives on the force, and the idea that Drake might be the first is treated by Holcomb (Eric Lange) and Ennis (Andrew Howard), the detectives on the Dodson case, as a joke. If this is how they interact with their fellow officer, we may make reasonable extrapolations about how much less regard they have for any non-white citizens they decide could be suspects. So the show gives us exactly one decent officer, and... well, keep watching to see what comes of his career.

    Showing that the criminal justice system serves power, rather than truth or justice, is Perry Mason's more urgent purpose. We can tell Ennis and Holcomb are at least lazy and/or power-tripping hardasses well before we learn that they're also running a protection racket on several illicit businesses; the two don't really even trust each other, and obviously shouldn't. In most cop narratives, they would be presented as "bad apple" outliers, whose successful removal from the force, by good cops, affirms the validity of the institution; without spoiling anything (too much), that is not what happens here. Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), the D.A. who's decided to prosecute the Dodson case himself, may wear better suits and belong to a tonier social club than the detectives, but he is just as compromised, disregarding inconvenient rules of evidence, suborning perjury, and colluding with a public defender to fix the case. We definitely see Mason and his team crossing ethical lines, too — you may never get near another golf course sand trap after you see what Mason and his fellow investigator Pete Strickland (Whigham) leave in one — but the show makes it clear that they couldn't vigorously defend their clients if they didn't; they're forced to cheat because the system is rigged against them.

    In addition to its thoughtful politics, Perry Mason is engaging and unpredictable and looks stylish as hell. Right now TV has a tiny handful of shows about defense attorneys: there's The Good Fight, Better Call Saul, For Life, and this. I think TV audiences are primed for a whole lot more, so to the producers out there working on pitches: bury us in anti-copaganda copycats. I'll watch them all.

    Perry Mason premieres Sunday June 21st at 9:00 PM ET on HBO.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Perry Mason (2020), HBO, Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin, George Floyd, John Lithgow, Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys, Nate Corddry, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany