Perry Mason has had a strange history of reboots and revivals. The iconic character of Erle Gardner novels, he has been a part of a successful CBS show, several mediocre TV movies, and an unsuccessful revival attempt in the 70s.
HBO flips the switch with its noir setting and takes the character in a different direction in this Perry Mason mini-series. The creators choose to focus on Mason’s initial years as a struggling Private Investigator in Los Angeles.
1. Quick Review
The Depression-era setting, the chilling and gruesome murder of a baby, and the overall grim and bleak vibe of the series immediately sets it apart from the character’s previous appearances.
Matthew Rhys’s Mason is in stark contrast from the Raymond Burr character of the old CBS show. The changed setting, along with the trademark style and production design of HBO makes sure that this is not your grandmother’s Mason.
The series is convoluted with a series of B-plots and character conflicts that are conveniently forgotten. The series starts as an investigative thriller and then spends the second half locked up in the courtroom.
This spoils the atmosphere and fast-pace built up in the first half. The actors are exceptional across the board as several veterans of other HBO dramas make appearances.
2. Is It Worth Watching?
Perry Mason has a massive fan base and is the third best-selling book series behind Harry Potter and Goosebumps.
The black-and-white CBS drama ran for nine seasons and was a huge success. HBO’s take is a triumph of style and substance but lacks a deeper, more engaging story.
The series opens with a couple tensed over a phone talking to the kidnapper of their baby. They have a suitcase of money ready for the ransom, but when they arrive at the exchange site, they find a bloody swaddle of their baby’s corpse.
The media pounces on the case, and the grotesque nature of the crime shakes the City of Angels. It becomes evident that the kidnapper had no plans to return the baby alive. Perry Mason, an alcoholic World War One veteran, is called in to investigate this gruesome murder.
Mason quickly becomes entangled in the corrupt and power-hungry structure of the LAPD. He follows the leads, and Evangelicals, bureaucrats, and criminals soon become entangled in the kidnapping-gone-wrong.
II. Cast & Performances
The best elements of Perry Mason come from the veteran cast of star-studded performers. All of them are outstanding in their roles and bounce of each other in scenes.
Matthew Rhys portrays a younger Mason of a different era but having the same charm that makes you root for him. He showcases his immense ability to slip in and out of Mason’s reserved character, going from quiet observer to volcanic debater effortlessly.
The supporting characters keep you guessing whether or not they are the goody-two-shoes that they seem. Shea Wingham plays Mason’s investigative partner, cracking jokes to diffuse the tension o=in the most serious circumstances.
Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany plays the Evangelical Sister Alice and gives a compelling performance. She not only furthers the plot but manages to shine a light on an important moment of American culture.
Paul Drake is a black police officer, trying to fight the system from the inside. He has to deal with corrupt bosses and racism that were predominant in the LAPD during the 30s. GLOW’s Gayle Rankin moves you with her portrayal of the suffering mother.
III. Visuals & Setting
HBO shows have never disappointed when it comes to the costume, makeup, and set design. The show shells out big bucks to reconstruct the Depression-era Los Angeles. The show is slick and stylish and shows us some rarely seen faces of American Culture.
Homophobia, racism, and rampant sexism are evident in the characters. The Evangelical movement, which ties up with the investigation, is an important aspect rarely depicted in TV shows.
Perry Mason is shot beautifully, and the blood-stained scenes are filmed in a way that they keep our eyes on the gruesome sights. The sprawling city of Los Angeles, with its criminal underbelly and far-from-perfect characters, is recreated with a palette of greys and blues. The somber tone follows the nature of the crime Mason is investigating.
3. Final Thoughts
Perry Mason gets bogged down with the obscure plots and character arcs of the supporting characters. A show which starts as an investigative thriller is scared to go all the way into the genre.
The courtroom scenes slow down the pace in the second half and could’ve been peppered throughout the series. The series wraps up in 8 episodes and is better than many others in the genre simply because of the amazing cast and production design.
The legacy fan following of Mason also helps. While there is room for improvement, if you’re looking for a crime show, this might be the best new offering.