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Perry Mason Season 2 Practically Begs for Happy Tweets From Liberal Viewers

The HBO reboot trades a good story for a parade of on-the-nose groaners.
  • Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason (Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO)
    Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason (Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO)

    As it moves into Season 2, HBO’s gritty approach to Perry Mason remains unconvincing. While this latest saga about Erle Stanley Gardner’s ace attorney has the look of a Depression-era gumshoe tale, it seems embarrassed by Gardner's idea of justice, and it isn't much interested in Mason's legendary legal bona fides. Instead, the series lays contemporary sensibilities on top of the story like an ill-fitting overcoat. It’s hard to imagine anyone signing up for a piece of that action.

    Here’s the rub: if modern audiences remember the 1957 Perry Mason series at all (to say nothing of the novels that spawned it), then they might recall that Raymond Burr’s law drama offered both a reliable formula and a relatively happy ending each week. Bluntly righteous prestige dramas don’t have time for all that. Apparently, the grief of our lives has become so insurmountable that our entertainments feel they have a solemn duty to reflect our collective agonies. We grimace from our couches at the prestige parade of dour antiheroes frowning back at us from our screens: meta-misery in high definition.

    At least Mr. Mason, who returns to HBO on March 6, is played with a bit less frothing sanctimony this go-around. Instead of reliving the traumas of the character’s WWI experience (realized with vivid detail in Season 1), Matthew Rhys’ hangdog, Chaplin-esque features mopily project more recent regrets. The pyrrhic victory of Season 1’s murder trial still haunts him. The fading memory of his mentor E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) still aches. He hates what former flame Lupe Gibbs (Verónica Falcón) has done with his old family farm. (It’s an airstrip and also a saloon now.) At least these days, he gets to blow off steam on a cool new motorcycle.

    To tamp down on Mason’s various agitations, his upstart law firm — filled out by Juliet Rylance as attorney-to-be Della Street, Chris Chalk as conflicted investigator Paul Drake, and Jee Young Han as Mason’s new secretary, Marion Kang — takes on dull civil cases. But executing wills and lawsuits hasn’t cheered him even a little bit; he chafes at the tedium and bristles working for a comically unscrupulous grocer played by Sean Astin.

    This boredom doesn't last. Once the boozy law dog gets a strong whiff of horseradish from the swift arrest of two young Mexican men (Fabrizio Guido and Peter Mendoza) implicated in the murder of an oil tycoon's entitled son (Tommy Dewey), Mason throws himself back into the criminal trial game in earnest.

    However, those waiting for Mason to transform into the dynamo of the courtroom seen in prior iterations will be disappointed. His time in court has its moments; there’s a line of inquiry involving an inkpad and a piece of tape that’s a bit ropey, but shows more promise than anything we saw in Season 1. But this season has more on its mind than making its lead look good.

    Perry Mason famously used legal precedent and procedure like his sword and shield. This reinterpretation prefers to fight more intimate battles outside the courtroom, padding out eight episodes with long, often soapy detours into the love life of the closeted Della and the conflicted, racially-charged investigative pursuits of Paul Drake. Della gets proactive and hires Marion as office secretary so she can "have a seat at the table.” (Perry's got a great, budget-minded retort: "To afford her, you're gonna have to sell that table.") Della's also making progressive waves in court, calling out objections and tackling touchier court procedures, despite her lack of a law degree.

    Della steps up because she has to. Mason’s distracted by fatherly duties that involve an initially testy relationship with Katherine Waterston, who plays a patriotic schoolteacher. Paul gets pulled into another aspect of the McCutcheon case alongside Pete Strickland (a woefully underused Shea Whigham) that tests his humanity. Mason’s law practice ostensibly rests on her shoulders, so excuse Della if her eyes sometimes drift toward the more fascinating ladies of the Los Angeles lunch set. Della’s burgeoning law career and romantic pursuits have such focus that Perry’s meanderings, legal and otherwise, feel blurry by comparison. In effect, Della is the most interesting part of the show.

    As far as this season's big, Chinatown-styled L.A. conspiracy goes, the series pulls headlines from the past few years and coats them with a thin noir varnish. It props up anachronistic foils such as assistant D.A. Tommy Milligan (Mark O'Brien), who has almost-orange hair, calls Mexican people "savages," and uses “hyuge” hand gestures when he speaks emphatically to the press. There’s also a goony riff on Sean Hannity called Fightin' Frank Finnity (John DiMaggio), an alarmist who blows dog whistles through the radio waves as the McCutcheon murder case hits a boil. These on-the-nose groaners are all part and parcel of the politics in Perry Mason, which distract from the few compelling aspects of its mystery in an attempt to make the more socially-minded viewers out there tweet in agreement.

    When it isn't biffing attempts at relevance, the series makes a few stirring observations that support its sense of social justice. There's a conversation at one point about how the law eventually became a tool to perpetually empower those who made L.A. ("When you build the whole damn place, you get to make the whole damn rulebook," a judge says to Mason.) When asked if he considers himself a martyr to the cause, Mason works a subtly determined expression on his face and replies, "I just see it as making things fair." Well, then. Should this series decide to maneuver away from its clunky political flourishes, Perry Mason might actually have a shot at greatness, especially if it lets us spend a little more time with that guy.

    Season 2 of Perry Mason premieres March 6 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO, with new episodes on Mondays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Perry Mason (2020), HBO, Jee Young Han, John DiMaggio, Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys, Shea Whigham