In his first major role since the thrilling thriller The Americans, Matthew Rhys now returns to the series format. This time to portray one of the most archetypal fiction detectives, Perry Mason.
Who would have thought that someone would brush the dust off one of the oldest and most reliable TV detectives of all time? That’s exactly what HBO has done. Perry Mason (based on the iconic character of Erle S. Gardner) was a regular weekly feature, prime time Saturday night, on CBS from 1957-1966.
As many as 271 (!) Episodes were produced by the series, starring Raymond Burr.
Attempts were made to revive the series in 1973, but it was only half a failed season. Then Hollywood followed up with a number of more or less memorable films, Burr played Perry Mason in 26 of them, in the period 1985-1993.
As HBO became interested in a remake of the series, they first hired Nic Pizzolatto as a screenwriter. Too bad he disappeared from the picture, because as a screenwriter and director he created unique crime magic with True Detective.
Betrayal, deception and racism during the Great Depression
The plot of the new series is set in Los Angeles, in the early thirties.
While the United States is struggling during the Great Depression (the stock market crash of October 2929), there are times of upswing in the liberal and cultural “City of Angels.” In the 1930s, the city’s population grew by as much as 25%.
In the summer of 1932, the Summer Olympics are held in Los Angeles, and the city flourishes with optimism and faith in the future, with growth in the film and TV industry, the oil industry and tourism. On the cultural scene, greats like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller advanced, while the industry was involved in the gigantic development of the Hoover Dam.
The slightly worn, slightly alcoholic, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) makes a living as a private detective, often with infidelity in the picture. He lives in the childhood home, a run-down small farm on the outskirts of the city, and drives around in the wreckage of a car. Mason has partnered with attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), and together they are hired to solve one of the decade’s most intricate, and bizarre, murder cases.
An infant has been kidnapped, and during the handover of the ransom it goes to hell. The kid is dead, his eyes are sewn open, and one of the city’s most wealthy, Herman Baggerly (Robert “T-1000” Patrick), engages Mason & Co to find the killers.
Neither the parents, Baggerly nor Mason trust a corrupt and racist LAPD. History has to repeat itself…
Both Baggerly and the child’s parents are members of an exotic congregation, led by the very energetic and highly charismatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany in a starring role!). Mason has to fight lies, corruption, mistrust and his own drunkenness.
More and more are centered around the outraged congregation, where it is spoken in tongues and lefles with occult resurrection.
Maslany is pardoned as the charismatic high priestess, who wants the child’s mother all the best, supports her when the world goes against, but who also carries her own dark secret. In a male-dominated society, she must fight for herself and women in general.
Perry Mason is a tribute to the seductive, nostalgic, film noir style. Dark lighting, dark alleys in the big city, cynicism, suggestive jazz music and general moral decay.
Los Angeles is dazzlingly beautiful and credibly recreated, 90 years back in time, down to the smallest detail. Photo is sober, beautiful and close, where light always plays an important role.
Rhys is solid as the complex, messy detective with a code of honor, but at the same time a man who is willing to cross gray areas to achieve justice, and stand on the side of the weakest.
Nostalgic trip down memory lane
That one has chosen to set the action to the 1930s is understandable, but at the same time it creates a distance between the characters and us viewers. Both people, plot and demeanor are taken from those hard days, authentic yes well, but still a bit something “antiquarian”.
We can hardly imagine that Perry Mason will appeal to today’s young Netflix / Youtube audience. However, they may not be the target audience either.
An updated Mason, set to our time (with a script by Nic Pizzolatto?), Would have made the series both more accessible, but at the same time also more current and relevant. Of course, it would not be as fascinating and nostalgic.
Unfortunately, the clichés and stereotypes are a little too close in line. Mason is a slightly overfilled, drunken detective who lives off small jobs, his clothes are worn and dirty, his stubble is always two or three days old, he “borrows” a tie from a corpse in decay at the morgue before he goes to court and has a rather sad non- existing relationship with the ex and the son.
Perry Mason, Season 1 (Photo: HBO)
The series is definitely the best in the first half, as Mason and his partner, Pete (an excellent Shea Whigham) trawl the city’s dirty alleys, dilapidated morgues and dingy brothels in search of the truth. The second half is primarily a traditional courtroom drama, and here the narrative does not quite hold up.
It all becomes a little too conventional, predictable, and the dramaturgy fails. Eight consecutive hours with only one criminal case are too thinly spread out; here one should rather learn from the Bosch series, which has succeeded well in merging both three and four cases into one and the same season.
All in all, a solid, gorgeous and nostalgic series with consistently exquisite acting (Lithgow’s character is too caricatured, but that’s due to more script than the actor) and good suspense. Will probably win a hearing with the older guard but struggle to attract a younger audience.
Season 1 does a great job of building the story around the private person Mason, who has a fascinating and motley life – a man we would like to follow further. 4 stars.
Perry Mason, season 1 premieres on HBO Nordic on June 22, with a new episode every Monday. The review is based on all episodes.