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Perry Mason Review: A Fantastic Cast Helps HBO's Reboot Almost Find Greatness

This ain't your grandpa's Perry Mason

Keith Phipps

Some shows take their time to tell you what sort of series you're watching. Others get right to it. HBO's Perry Mason reboot lays firmly in the latter category, opening on a gray, Depression-era Los Angeles that's home to a couple in crisis, Emily (G.L.O.W.'s Gayle Rankin) and Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry). Their new baby Charlie has been taken for ransom and though they've agreed with the kidnappers' requests, they're about to discover the already horrifying crime has become even worse than they could have imagined. When the Dodsons retrieve their child, as arranged, from downtown L.A.'s Angels Flight after watching its railway car descend from the vantage of a nearby hotel, they discover Charlie is dead and that his eyes have been sewn open to make him appear alive from a distance. The series lingers on the image in all its grisly detail -- all before the first episode has hit the three-minute mark.

If showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald wanted to establish right away that this Perry Mason would be unlike any Perry Mason viewers might have encountered elsewhere, then mission accomplished. Jones and Fitzgerald took on the project after Nic Pizzolatto left to revive True Detective for a third season, but it still has some of Pizzolatto's trademark dancing-to-the-edge-of-nihilsim moodiness. (Pizzolatto's version would also have starred Robert Downey Jr., who remains aboard as an executive producer.) "It's a dark tunnel," Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) tells his associates as they look over the details of the case. "Long, long deep, dark tunnel." And at this point, even Mason doesn't know just how deep and dark things will get.

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In reviving Perry Mason, Jones and Fitzgerald have both a long history on which to draw and a blank slate on which to write. The creation of lawyer-turned-pulp fiction writer Erle Stanley Gardner, the mystery-solving Mason -- a defense lawyer with the habit of making guilty parties crack and confess their crimes in court — made his debut in the 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws, then returned for 79 more installments until Gardner's death in 1970. Along the way, Mason appeared in movies, radio dramas, and, most famously, on television where he was played for nine seasons by Raymond Burr between 1957 and 1966, then played by Burr again in a string of TV movies that began in the 1980s. That's a lot of source material, yet you could absorb it all and still know little to nothing about Mason, his secretary Della Street, his investigator Paul Drake, or his frequent antagonist, District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Neither Gardner nor others who handled the character had much use for backstory.

Enter this new Perry Mason, which, over the course of eight episodes, delves into Mason's past while redefining him for a new age of television driven by complex characters, richly detailed worlds, and season-long storylines. It manages those first two elements so well that it's a shame it keeps tripping over the third.

Shea Whigham and Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Shea Whigham and Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Merrick Morton/HBO

Trading '80s wigs of The Americans for rumpled '30s hats but retaining his ability to convey soul-deep dread, Rhys stars as Mason who, as the series begins, isn't yet a lawyer. In fact, he's a disheveled, directionless man just inches away from finding rock bottom. The dairy farm he inherited from his parents has fallen into disarray, he's drinking too much, he has an ex-wife who wants nothing to do with him, a kid who's starting to forget him, and he's barely scraping together a living doing others' dirty work as a private eye. And the work gets pretty dirty. Hired to find out what a Fatty Arbuckle-like movie star does in his downtime -- it involves starlets and pumpkin pie -- he tries to up his fee for a powerful studio boss with some added bit of blackmail only to see the scheme backfire. That leaves him with a fresh scar to go with some old war wounds and without any money to show for his trouble, much to the distress of associate Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), a former vice cop who now makes a living helping out Mason (while enjoying the sleazy fringe benefits of exploring L.A.'s underbelly).

Fortunately, Mason has a line on some more respectable work courtesy of E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), a colorful, respected defense attorney who takes on the Dodson case after the Dodsons themselves fall under suspicion (in what way and how that focus shifts is a twist best left unrevealed). Also in Jonathan's employ: Della Street (The Knick's Juliet Rylance), a secretary in title only without whom the office wouldn't run at all. In one of the first episode's best scenes, each draws on their own stash of hidden liquor -- Prohibition is still nominally in effect, after all -- as they mull over the details of the case, each making their own valuable contributions. It's the sort of working relationship that doesn't happen overnight, and the camaraderie is clearly one of the few elements keeping Mason from sinking into despair.

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Rhys plays Mason as part of a long tradition of tortured protagonists that stretches from The Sopranos to, well, The Americans and beyond. That he has a better calibrated moral compass than some of his predecessors at times makes his life that much harder. World War I and his busted marriage haunt him and the city keeps reminding him that virtue won't help him survive. This is a vision of Los Angeles deeply informed by the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. The cops are mostly crooked. (Andrew Howard's especially good as the nastiest of the bunch.) Money buys power and silence. And even the churches have an angle, particularly a popular, celebrity-endorsed church built around the teachings of the charismatic, silver-haired Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany, playing a character inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson).

HBO veteran Tim Van Patten directs the lion's share of the episodes, all of them meticulously detailed, beautifully photographed, and moody in ways that match the Terence Blanchard score. They're just as rich in character as in historical details. Rhys makes for a fine lead as his Mason haltingly recovers a sense of purpose. He's surrounded by standout performances both expected (Whigham, Lithgow, Stephen Root as an oily DA) and otherwise. He develops a smoky chemistry with Veronica Falcón -- a veteran of many Spanish-language projects who hasn't often been seen outside of them -- who plays a pilot with little use for romantic attachment. The standout among standouts, however, is Chris Chalk (When They See Us), who plays Drake, reimagined here as a black policeman trying to hold onto his integrity in the midst of a system that doesn't even want him there in the first place. Chalk makes the character feel consistent even as his Drake constantly has to code switch based on his surroundings, letting his guard down at home, staying deferential to white cops he doesn't respect in order to keep his job, and turning flirtatious while fishing for clues in a nightclub.

Tatiana Maslany, Perry Mason

Tatiana Maslany, Perry Mason

Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry Mason has all the ingredients of a great show but a less-than-compelling narrative keeps it from becoming one. At eight episodes, the kidnapping case feels stretched to the breaking point and as good as Maslany is as the charismatic preacher (ditto Lili Taylor as her quietly controlling mother), the megachurch subplot frequently seems extraneous. In the end, it plays less like a season of television than an eight-hour pilot that, by the end of the finale, has finally put all the pieces in place and is ready to get down to business of defending the innocent and sniffing out the guilty along the way. By this point the show has even found ways to lighten the tone, particularly in a fake-out sequence that lovingly tweaks the Burr series. Anyone not already exhausted by the trip into the long, dark tunnel will likely find themselves looking forward to a second season that tries to find out what's on the other side.

TV Guide Rating: 3/5

Perry Mason premieres Sunday, June 21 on HBO.