In his classic essay “The Little Church Of Perry Mason,” cultural critic Dave Hickey explains how the orderly formula of TV’s premier courtroom drama concealed another, more profound sense of order. Each of the 19 episodes on the DVD set Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 1 break down much the same way, with Raymond Burr’s superstar Los Angeles attorney taking on an obviously guilty client, then shattering the prosecution’s case by finding a key piece of evidence, then calling the real killer to the stand. As Hickey notes, the first half of any given Perry Mason episode can pretty much be ignored, since the facts don’t really come out until court convenes, at about the half-hour mark. But as Hickey also notes, that second half is exciting every time, as Burr’s chummy legal team doggedly chases down the boss’ hunch. Burr’s uncanny sense of guilt and innocence ignores how suspects look or what they do for a living, and considers only the truth.
The production values on the earliest episodes—which first aired in 1957—are kind of plain, and even though the show is set in L.A., the location only plays a part inasmuch as Hollywood producers sometimes wind up as clients, and Burr sometimes eats Mexican food. But Perry Mason is still part of a long line of L.A. mystery shows that includes Columbo and the current TNT series The Closer, about iconoclastic investigators who ignore the city’s social order, and pursue stupefying tactics that they keep to themselves. Given his general air of self-righteousness, it’s surprising how underhanded Burr can be at times, as he hides clients from the police and tampers with evidence to trap witnesses into lying. It’s also surprising that his weekly prosecutorial opponent, William Talman—the Washington Generals of TV lawyers—kept his job for the whole nine years that the show was on the air. But then, Perry Mason was never about legal realism; it was about choosing up sides. On the wrong side? As Burr’s secretary Barbara Hale puts it, “Anyone not represented by Perry Mason.”
Key features: Null and void.