Nearly 100 years after his creation, Perry Mason remains a paradigm of the honest lawyer. Swift justice was the order of the day throughout author Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels—still among the best-selling ever—and Raymond Burr’s classic portrayal of the hard-nosed lawyer is a television icon thousand imitators that, for better or worse, simplified America’s understanding of the courtroom. In less than one hour, a lawyer backed by nothing but the truth could solve cases by squeezing a confession on the stand and make good on the societal bedrock “innocent until proven guilty.” Gardner’s creation turned cops and judges into corrupt jailors, valuing expediency over all else. Instead, Gardner depicted a shaky institution in which the “illusion of justice” is more important than the real thing.
That’s not Mason, though. “Truth is the most powerful weapon a man can use, and if you practice law the way we do, it’s the only weapon powerful enough to use,” Mason says in The Case Of The Baited Hook. “A lawyer doing the things that I have done and relying on anything less powerful than truth would be disbarred in a month.”
These things are still apparent in the gritty, HBO-ified update of Perry Mason. There are some caveats, though. In season one, creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald needed to thread two needles. First, they presented a new Perry Mason, one outfitted in a noir detective’s suit and transformed into a traumatized war vet with a drinking problem. Second, the creators needed to justify the format, tossing off a century of episodic procedurals in favor of a season-long mystery that Raymond Burr could solve in 52 minutes. Jones and Fitzgerald transformed a case-of-the-week show into a prestige character drama that was more Marlowe than Mason and required placing the typically hyper-confident and capable Mason on his heels. Now, season two showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (The Knick) have to do that again.
Director Fernando Coimbra opens with an impressive long tracking shot through the Luxe gambling ship just before a waiter drops a molotov cocktail in a laundry basket of oily rags. These ships operated in the mythic “international waters,” where the LAPD has no jurisdiction and the remorseless tycoons could crush their competition without worry. The waiter was working at the behest of Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), the adult failson of a local magnate Lynell (Paul Raci). But, when Luxe explosion draws too much heat, his father orders Brooks to focus on his charity work, not his police-backed casino boats, and a flailing attempt at filling the empty baseball stadium into which he sunk a fortune. Like the class of large adult sons we live among today, Brooks has never met a problem he couldn’t make worse by trying to worm his way out of it.
Unfortunately for Brooks, Depression-era Americans weren’t sold on becoming Angelenos, and the city’s low population didn’t signal big success for a Major League outfit. New York gets three teams because Los Angeles might as well be Mars to the rest of the country.
Even Martians have problems. When we last saw Perry Mason (still in-the-pocket Matthew Rhys), he kept Emily Dodson away from the gallows and started his law firm. He even has an associate, the incomparable Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and a dependable investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk). Yet, he’s still drinking too much, doodling motorcycles on his legal pads, and pining for the day when he can get back to real justice. Since season one, Perry has moved from criminal cases to civil law, but the focus costed him his integrity. Working for a local grocery tycoon, Sunny Gryce (Sean Astin), Mason uses his famed cross-examination skills to bankrupt one of Gryce’s former employees, whom Gryce sued over intellectual property the employee developed, breaking early invention assignment agreements. But, like Perry, the employee has his success used against him, and now Perry wields the law to crush the working man.
This isn’t what Mason signed up for. Even if the “jury decided that case,” Mason feels guilty, wondering aloud, “Who’s to blame for what happens after?” Perry and Della are graced by D.A. Hamilton Burger (another fantastic turn from Justin Kirk), who reminds Mason that despite his “brooding cynicism,” Mason still believes in justice, and it’s why he feels so depressed after handily and impressively winning his case. Although, Burger is more cynical than he lets on. He concedes that American justice merely has to give the taxpayer the “illusion of justice.” Burger’s paid to maintain the fantasy that keeps “people believing that truth always prevails.” Burger said this to the absolute wrong guy. Despite the “brooding cynicism,” embellished grittiness, and excessive drinking, Burger’s right: Perry Mason believes in all that crap. He’s not cynical but idealistic. “Who the fuck wants to be any part of that?” Mason asks as he shoots back a glass of bourbon.
The HBO-ification of Perry Mason isn’t a bad thing. Sure, it means that besides being an all-around shitheel, Brooks is also into choke play. Yet it gives Mason a reason to be so motivated, vulnerable, and unpredictable. While the first episode is a lot of shoe leather, it gets where this version of Mason works best: backed into a corner. We close on Brooks shot dead in his car on the beach. His plans were always as stable as a sandcastle, and now our supposed seasonal big bad is out to sea. The villain fake-out was a welcome surprise in a somewhat ho-hum premiere. One thing’s for sure, though: Whoever gets pinned with the murder is going to need a good lawyer.
- Hi, I’m Matt Schimkowitz. I’ll be taking you through 1930s L.A. this season, and we’re on a collision course with justice.
- The show’s blue and amber color palate is still rich and bounces off the exquisite sets and locations with a moody atmosphere. Few shows are as beautifully designed as Mason. That remains true in season two.
- Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are such a perfect fit for this show. If anything, this first episode is a great reminder to re-watch The Knick.
- It makes sense that the show would hope to fill out Della’s character and expand upon her relationship with Mabel, the hand model. However, this plot, so far, feels so detached from what’s going on at the firm. As a result, it feels perfunctory, but who doesn’t want to see Rylance’s open-hearted Della Street find a little romance? I’m willing to reserve judgment on this until we see more.
- While researching the casino boats that inspired the opening set-piece, I found this fantastic L.A. Times article (complete with video) on the sinking of the S.S. Rex, one of Santa Monica’s most infamous gaming barges.
- Title Card Corner: Mason’s title screen is always memorable, and they nailed it with a very painterly shot of the Luxe going down. It looked fantastic, with the letters looping around Holcomb flipping his game chip. Mason gives the fantastic Watchmen chyrons a run for their money.