Perry Mason review: Matthew Rhys stars in a convoluted reboot

This eight-part origin story for America’s most famous fictional DA is an enjoyable, if inessential retro-noir, with our hero digging for the truth among fanciful riffs on 1920s and 1930s history.

14 August 2020

By Graham Fuller

Perry Mason (2020)
Sight and Sound

The benchmark for episodic crime procedurals drenched in period atmosphere and portentousness was set by the first series of HBO’s True Detective (2014) and Netflix’s Babylon Berlin (2017-). Striving for their excellence, HBO’s Perry Mason, the eight-part origin story of pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner’s indomitable Los Angeles defence attorney, is an impressively murky Depression-era retro-noir, but a question mark hangs over its renewability. It feels inessential – a result of the decision by writers Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones to model it on a major celebrity crime.

A non-degree’d lawyer who zealously defended poor and wrongly accused people, Gardner created Mason in his own mould and from 1933 featured him in 82 novels and four short stories; they remain American literature’s bestselling adult series. Detesting Warner’s six 1930s film adaptations and CBS’s 1943-55 radio version, Gardner resisted television’s interest, but was persuaded by the pioneering executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson (his agent’s wife) to commit to a series starring Raymond Burr, whom the author considered the ideal Mason.

Gardner eventually served as an uncredited consultant on the 271 Perry Mason episodes broadcast by CBS between 1957 and 1966. The unflappable Mason was aided by his knowing secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and the droll detective Paul Drake (William Hopper) and over time became less of an investigator himself than a courtroom bureaucrat exploiting legal niceties; Burr also starred in the first 26 of the 30 Perry Mason TV films made between 1985 and 1995.

As the first True Detective echoed Channel 4’s Red Riding Trilogy (2009), so the new Perry Mason, directed by Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, echoes ITV’s Endeavour, the Inspector Morse origin story currently scheduled for an eighth series. For back story, Gardner provided Mason with a Leo star sign and little else. HBO’s series, set in 1931-32, gives him a grim history that’s etched in Matthew Rhys’s performance, but which gels less well with Burr’s resoluteness than the growing bitterness of Shaun Evans’s Endeavour does with John Thaw’s cynical older Morse.

Mason is a ferrety, unwashed private investigator who snoops for E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), a principled old-school lawyer losing his grip. Mason’s tampering with crime scenes for a good cause recalls the suspect methods the character demonstrated in Gardner’s early 30s novels.

Spectacular, wholly unnecessary trench warfare flashbacks reveal that Mason was a doughboy officer, dishonourably discharged for the carnage he participated in (like Babylon Berlin’s Inspector Rath, another World War I veteran, he suffers PTSD). Estranged from his wife and son, he’s the heir to a decrepit two-cow dairy farm cramped by an airfield; its tough Mexican pilot proprietor Lupe (Veronica Falcón) visits Mason for sex.

Perry Mason (2020)

A scene in which the ailing E.B. sees tiny drops of blood in his wash-basin augurs Mason’s future as a man who must become responsible not only for himself and his wisecracking assistant (Shea Whigham), but especially for E.B.’s imperilled clients. This forces him onto the main stage in LA’s politically driven criminal justice system. As he evolves, so do his initially antagonistic relationships with Della (Juliet Rylance), here E.B’s ebullient secretary, and Drake (Chris Chalk), crucially a Black beat cop oppressed by racism in the NYPD. Given the current climate, it’s unsettling that the bent white plainclothesman who menaces Drake and his pregnant wife kills a villain by standing on his throat.

The influence of Endeavour is implied by Mason’s banter with a pathologist who lets him choose a necktie from corpses in the morgue, the show’s equivalent of young Morse’s pithy collegial conversations with Dr DeBryn. An element of Endeavour that Perry Mason might have avoided is its brain-frazzling convolutedness. It starts with two mysteries based on real-life tragedies – a horrific reimagining of the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping that makes a grocer and his wife the grieving parents, and a comic take on the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe tragedy. The latter storyline is jettisoned after Mason is beaten for trying to gouge extra money from the studio that hired him to follow its rotund slapstick star, whom he secretly snapped gluttonously trysting with its new starlet.

Having exorcised his sleazy side, Mason is free to focus on the noble job of rescuing the dead baby’s parents from the electric chair. Duplicitous, but seemingly innocent of the crime, they are members of an evangelical cult centring on radio preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who has a vague resemblance to Nazimova in the 1922 silent version of Salomé, a domineering mother (Lili Taylor) and an unexpected conscience. Inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson, the era’s mediasavvy superstar evangelist, Alice is, next to Mason himself, the most sympathetic character. The fact that she was pre-empted earlier this year by Kerry Bishé’s Sister Molly in the 1938 LA of Showtime’s negligible Penny Dreadful: City of Angels suggests that, in contemporary TV, originality is old hat.

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