Fans of the most familiar version of Perry Mason—Raymond Burr in the nine-season black-and-white CBS series and in several TV movies afterward—may be taken aback by HBO’s crafting of the world’s greatest defense attorney. Matthew Rhys’ Mason is slight (Burr was tall and foreboding, with shoulders a linebacker would envy), rumpled, and far from the legal professional who caused criminals to break on the stand more often than not. That’s because this HBO series (produced by Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey) takes the unusual path of exploring Perry Mason’s early days, back when he was a grimy, window-peeking P.I.—a character that more closely resembles the Mason in the many novels by Erle Stanley Gardner (the third best-selling book series of all time, behind Harry Potter and Goosebumps).
At the beginning of his first mystery, 1933’s The Case Of The Velvet Claws, that Perry is described this way: “He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, then finish him with one terrific punch.” Even that version of Mason is advanced compared with Rhys’ depiction; one of our first views of Perry Mason onscreen is him snapping salacious pictures for a studio head concerned about a Fatty Arbuckle-type character violating the morals clause (boy, is he ever). This Perry can’t even get an egg splotch (or is it mustard?) off of his tie when his old mentor, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), comes calling to draft him for the biggest case in the city, leading him to trawling for dead men’s ties in the morgue instead.
The biggest case of 1932 Los Angeles involves the most tragic of crimes—a child murder—and Perry Mason leads off with a disturbing image around the premiere’s five-minute mark that the viewer may have trouble shaking for the rest of the series. To its credit, the visage is meant to be shocking enough to jar this scruffy Perry Mason into stop wasting his laser-sharp mind and help bring the monsters who did this to justice. Along with some full-frontal nudity that soon follows, it also seems intended to assert right out of the gate that this is not your grandpa’s Perry Mason. Rhys is always a joy to witness, and he’s all in here—if you can look past the six-o’clock stubble, his Mason possesses just enough smarmy charm to make you want to root for him, even as he’s clearly his own worst enemy.
Though possibly thrown by such a faltering Perry Mason, fans of the CBS series will be pleased to spot other familiar names in the cast of characters, though there’s no chance of a Perry/Della Street (Juliet Rylance) will-they/won’t-they flirtation in this universe, as she’s gay. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is not an independent investigator but an ambitious young Black cop with a baby on the way hassled by his corrupt superiors on the police force. Hamilton Burger is not yet Mason’s almost constant courtroom adversary, but a lawyer who helps to coach him on legal matters. In one sly meta nod during a mock trial, he hilariously insists to Mason that no one would be able to break a witness down on the stand because that never actually happens, even though fans of the original series witnessed that about once a week. Even the LAPD’s Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange), a frequent guest on the TV show, makes an appearance. (The lack of the iconic theme song, however, seems like a missed opportunity.)
The character lineup gets a bit more complicated the further it strays from the original cast. Somehow the child’s death is tied up with a profitable revivalist church, led by the luminous Tatiana Maslany as its star preacher/performer, Sister Alice, who raises loads of money on the radio and at temple gatherings. Maslany, like Rhys, is excellent, but she’s forced to carry a lot with a twisted religious plot that takes some definite turns for the bizarre. (An always-welcome Lili Taylor plays Alice’s long-suffering mother.) The conspiracy also entwines that shoddy police force, as well as a district attorney, played by a happily grandstanding Stephen Root.
In fact, the greatest joy of viewing Perry Mason comes just from having so many amazing performers playing off of each other. Why has it taken this long for Root and Lithgow to face off in a courtroom, sporting three-piece suits and watch chains? Any time Rhys and Maslany share a space, the screen practically crackles. Kayser and Chalk take on their iconic roles with aplomb. 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.
But the show’s not called The Case Of The Mysterious Church: It’s Perry Mason. And even with the spirited cast of characters that surrounds him, it’s his journey, more than the case’s, that’s most intriguing. The Perry Mason we first meet has bottomed out almost completely. While Mason shops for those ties at the morgue, the coroner mentions the new body that’s just come in, from a “kidnapping gone wrong”: “Worse thing you’ve ever seen,” he says. Mason just shrugs: “How do you know what I’ve seen?” Jaded as he is, even he can’t help but being shaken by this particular case. We also know that he’s a World War I vet who received a “blue discharge for conduct unbecoming” but we don’t initially know why—although we have a hint from Lithgow: “We do what we don’t like when there’s a greater good to be served. You more than anyone should know that.” Rhys deftly unfurls the enigmatic character layer by layer, crafting this degenerate into a more recognizable version of the legal icon revered for decades. The mystery of how he’s able to pull that off is far more compelling than the unsavory plot that strings Perry Mason along.
Reviews by Allison Shoemaker will run weekly.