TV's once-recognisable attorney is now made relatable for today's audience.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
The Perry Mason that we know isn't the same Perry Mason that our parents are familiar with. For one, HBO's adaptation has Perry Mason as a private investigator. In the first episode, we see him and Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) trying to take incriminating photos of an actor in flagrante delicto. It's far from the TV character played by Raymond Burr; the self-assured, well-groomed defence attorney is a ghost of Rhys' portrayal, which is that of a down-on-his-luck, slovenly, drunkard sourpuss private dick. Y'know, the usual PI trope.
The original Perry Mason that aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966 always follow this format: the first half introduces the murder and Mason (then played by Raymond Burr) taking on a client charged with said murder based on circumstantial evidence. The rest of the episode, Mason will come face-to-face with District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, in the courtroom and with the odds seemingly stacked against him, Mason will come to a clue that would lead into a line of questioning that will cause the actual perpetrator to confess to the crime.
HBO's Perry Mason is a lot more complex than that. Burger (Justin Kirk) kills one of the original Perry Mason's sacred cow, that "no one confesses on the stand". Another slain cow is the aforementioned profession of Mason: that of a gumshoe. He's hired to look into the kidnapping and death of a child and this affects Mason on a personal level given that he's estranged from his ex-wife and kid.
Matthew Rhys plays the dogged investigator with such surety that the role was made for him. Rhys sinks into the underbelly of the LA underworld, chasing leads, and getting roughed up for it. He carries that pinched expression that worked for him so well during his tenure on The Americans but Rhys can soften when the occasion requires a gentle approach.
You cannot get a better cast than that on Perry Mason. John Lithgow as EB Jonathan, the defence attorney who hires Mason; Shea Whigham as Pete Strickland, Mason's partner; Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice, a popular firebrand of a church leader; Juliet Rylance as Della Street, EB's long-suffering receptionist with dreams of being a litigator; Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, one of the few Black cops whose stellar detective work is hampered by police corruption and racism; Stephen Root as Maynard Barnes, an attention-seeking DA… each member play their part and off each other's beautifully. It is a rare thing to see such a well-oiled ensemble.
There is one stand-out actor that deserves praise: Gayle Rankin, who plays Emily Dodson, the mother of the dead child. If she looks familiar, she plays Sheila the She-Wolf on GLOW. Sheila is a comedic role, one that requires much nuances but Rankin's depiction of Dodson as a grieving mother with secrets of her own is a wonder to behold.
There is a titillating mystery but this is also a showcase of character work, something that Erle Stanley Gardner wasn't interested in with regards to his characters. In fact, HBO's Perry Mason hews closer to Gardner's scant description of the detective in the books than on TV… well, mostly. In his first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason described himself through the eyes of others: "If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he'll probably tell you that I'm a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney's office, he'll tell you that I'm a dangerous antagonist but he doesn't know very much about me."
The visuals are gorgeous. LA at the time of a showbiz boom is a city draped in the shadows cast by the stage lights; the city is hunger draped in fineries that it can't afford—the public needs a distraction from the Great Depression. It needs a scandal. Enter the kidnapping gone wrong. The court scenes are electrifying. Emotions run high and it was a time where reporters and public gawkers fill the room so every time an attorney delivers a verbal blow, the crowd bursts into a cacophony.
Director and Executive Producer, Tim Van Patten, who worked on Boardwalk Empire, brings his savvy of the era to Perry Mason. From the costumes to the palette, no detail is spared.
Note: This is an origin story so some might think that Mason becoming a lawyer without enrolling in law school borders on the fantastical. I was one of the sceptics but apparently, California is one of four states in America that allows you to do so. Given Mason's close relationship with EB Jonathan and assistance from Burger, it's not out of the ordinary for him to be a barrister. (Other real-life lawyers who didn't go to law school includes Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster and Clarence Darrow. #themoreyouknow)
What we didn't like
With all the callbacks to other Gardner's works, there was one thing that was sorely lacking and we're kinda bummed that the producers couldn't fit it in and that's the Perry Mason theme song: "Park Avenue Beat" by Fred Steiner.
Okay. Or maybe this Ozzy Osbourne's tune of the same name; we're not picky.
What to look out for
Watch out for this nod to Gardner's first book, The Case of the Velvet Claws, where at the end of the series, Mason's new client is a woman named Eva Griffin, who is accused of murder.
Perry Mason debuts the same time as America on Monday, 22 June at 9am exclusively on HBO GO and HBO, with a same day encore at 10pm on HBO. Subsequent new episodes premiere every Monday at the same time.