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Perry Mason Season 2 Review: HBO's L.A. Noir Finally Delivers on Its Promise

The Matthew Rhys-led legal drama has found its footing

Keith Phipps
Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Merrick Morton/HBO

By the end of its first season Perry Mason had established itself as one of the year's most promising new shows but also one of its most frustrating. A new take on Erle Stanley Gardner's mystery-solving Los Angeles defense attorney, the season introduced a terrific cast, recreated 1930s L.A. in exacting detail, and set it all to a moody, noir-inspired Terence Blanchard score. What's more, co-creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald offered smart new takes on the classic characters, starting with Mason (Matthew Rhys), who began the show as a hard-drinking private eye traumatized by his service in World War I and smarting from a recent divorce. He had a long way to go before he became the Perry Mason from Gardner's novels and a string of adaptations across different media, a long-running TV series starring Raymond Burr the most famous among them. Beyond its mysteries, the series would be about getting him there.

That journey, however, had a bit of a bumpy beginning, even though the core characters were both cleverly conceived and memorably played. Juliet Rylance's Della Street, Mason's secretary in previous incarnations, became a shrewd legal mind of her own, bumping up against the era's expectations of women (and the need to hide her sexuality). Chris Chalk's Paul Drake remained a canny investigator but arrived at that position after a frustrating stint as a Black beat cop in a police department filled with racism and prejudice. But Jones and Fitzgerald too often leaned on grimness for its own sake, and the central mystery, a case of a child kidnapping apparently gone horribly awry, never felt like it needed a full season to unfold. By the end it felt like a too drawn-out pilot for the series to come.

Perry Mason's second season plays like the fully developed series that setup promised. As it opens, Perry's only slightly less of a mess than he was at the beginning of the first season. Now living in a bachelor apartment in a seemingly permanent state of disarray, he's still drinking too much and troubled by the aftermath of his last big case. But he does have some things going for him, starting with a motorcycle (that we'll later learn he'd promised to give up), an office with his name on the door, and Della to keep him on task while making sure he makes good on his promise that she'll be a full participant in the practice.


Perry Mason


  • Season 2 unlocks the show's full potential
  • A compelling mystery moves at a good clip
  • The cast remains strong
  • The details bring the Los Angeles noir to life


  • It took Season 1 too long to get here (but don't hold that against the new episodes)

If only the work wasn't such a drag. Having shifted away from criminal law and into civil work, Perry finds himself dealing with wills and other dull business. Even their courtroom work fills him with mixed feelings. Did he really get into this business to help Sunny Gryce (Sean Astin), the penny-pinching owner of a big grocery store, put the owner of a little grocery store out of business? But within a few episodes Perry and Della will be using the income from that case, and subsequent work helping the rich Gyrce get richer, to offset defense work for a shocking and high-profile case involving one of the richest and most powerful families in the city.

Perry Mason's second season follows the first's one-case-per-season model but it moves along at a clip the first season rarely achieved. New showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are best known for co-creating The Knick, the Steven Soderbergh-directed series centered on a New York hospital in the earliest days of the 20th century. The mostly excellent series had its ups and downs, particularly in its second season, but Amiel and Begler always knew how to keep a yarn spinning and had a keen interest in exploring every corner of a city at a historical turning point, and those skills serve them well here.

Season 2 moves from the most exclusive gatherings of the rich and powerful to the city's Hoovervilles, the home of Rafael (Fabrizio Guido) and Mateo Gallardo (Peter Mendoza), the two Mexican-American brothers accused of murder whom Perry and Della find themselves defending. In a later episode we'll learn that it's more than the Great Depression that pushed them into such dire conditions, their neighborhood having been paved over, and its residents run off, in the name of a new stadium. The Los Angeles of the show is a city in the process of becoming the Los Angeles we know, and its origin story is not always a happy one.

Matthew Rhys, Chris Chalk, and Juliet Rylance, Perry Mason

Matthew Rhys, Chris Chalk, and Juliet Rylance, Perry Mason


The season's central mystery is compelling, but it's details like that that set the show apart and draw it into the tradition of other classic Los Angeles-set noirs. When Paul is drawn into the case after a frustrating stint of unemployment that's led him and his wife, Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick), to take him residence in the Watts home of Clara's brother, his journey brings him into parts of town Perry and Della can't visit, and leads him to brush up against a Black power broker who mixes criminal skills and a love of profit with genuine ambitions to improve his neighborhood and empower its residents. 

Paul's need to work with such characters is far from the only act of moral compromise. When Della falls for Anita (Jen Tullock), a tart-tongued screenwriter, she finds her desire to be with her hampered by the prejudices of the day but also by a long-running cover story in which she and the city's gay district attorney Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) are seen out and about together. When the season's murder trial starts to turn into a newspaper fixture, that balance becomes harder still.

The world of the Perry Mason revamp was rich and filled with memorable characters from the start, and this season wouldn't be possible without all the work put into building that world and those characters. But Season 2 — which also features notable supporting performances from Hope Davis, Katherine Waterston, a returning Shea Whigham, and others — also confirms the sense that the first season was effectively eight episodes of winding up. With these episodes Perry Mason really gets going.

Premieres: Monday, March 6 at 9/8c on HBO
Who's in it: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk
Who's behind it: Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
For fans of: Historical fiction, mystery, courtroom dramas, sharply tailored suits and dresses
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8