We have been watching the new HBO TV series, Perry Mason that airs on Sunday nights. This show is not your father’s Perry Mason. Except for a few character’s names and its Los Angeles setting there is little to equate it with the long running TV crime series starring Raymond Burr in the title role. Billed as an origin story and more closely aligned to the underlying novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, what is served is a noir detective story. It echoes more of Dashiell Hammett and Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade than the courtroom drama that made the name more famous.
I grew up watching the Burr courtroom drama. It was a show that the whole family watched together. We all took delight as the minute hand climbed to the top of the hour, as each episode drew to a close and all tried to guess who was the real guilty party. Knowing full well that that person wasn’t sitting at the defense table. I must say that my conviction rate fell far short of Mr. Mason’s.
Unlike in that series where every week brought a new case in this reboot the entire season is all one big case. In this series Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is not even a lawyer, but a down on his luck private investigator, who in 1931, at the height of the Depression cannot catch a break, until he is hired by another defense attorney, played by John Lithgow. Involving a baby, Mason is thrown into a grisly kidnapping case that has gone horribly sideways. In addition to Mason, two other familiar character names from the old TV series appear, Della Street and Paul Drake, but also in guises other than remembered or imagined.
This show has a very dark reimagining of Perry Mason and his world, but also a splendidly drawn one. His attire is always disheveled, no tailored suits for him. More than just a gumshoe, he looks like he rolled around in it too. LA itself is just as seedy. The LA cops are not just corrupt, but viciously so, but throughout this noir story nothing is as dark as Mason’s brooding soul. This quote is typical of his world view, “Everybody’s up to something. Everybody’s got an angle, hiding something. And everybody is guilty.” The show’s cast of characters are so richly developed that it will be a shame to pick only one of them as the guilty party, as it will also be impossible to pick the right one. We’ve watched the first three episodes of this eight part series. The fourth one drops tonight.