Television

Perry Mason Gets Its Mandatory Gritty Reboot

Matthew Rhys stars in an adaptation with pretty much no resemblance to its origins.

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Perry Mason. HBO. Sunday, June 21, 9 p.m.

Meet the new Perry Mason. The old one was one of the most remarkably stable—and square—characters in American entertainment culture. Through more than 80 novels and short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, six Warner Brothers films, 271 television episodes starring Raymond Burr, 15 more in an abortive reboot with Monte Markham, 253 radio shows, and uncounted TV movies, cartoons, and comic strips, Mason for the past nine decades has been not only the nation's foremost criminal defense attorney, but its most upright, rarely bending and never breaking a rule while winning approximately all of his cases.

He's so squeaky clean that during hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor was able to cite Mason as her primordial source of legal thought without fear of scandal. (Sotomayor may have been influenced by the fact Mason was among the first American attorneys to get an ethnicity transplant when his radio self briefly turned Hispanic during the 1940s.)

The hero of HBO's new miniseries Perry Mason is an altogether different fellow who shares practically nothing with his earlier incarnations but the name. He's not even a lawyer but a sleazy private investigator who works "on the bottom, feeding off runaways and cheaters," as a sneering cop remarks with considerable accuracy, and isn't above a little blackmail when the opportunity presents itself.

Clad in a perpetual five o'clock shadow and a grubby wardrobe purchased second-hand from the city morgue ("I've got a domestic stabbing with a three-piece if you want," offers an attendant), the broke Mason lives in a half-wrecked farmhouse next to a cropduster airstrip ("a two-cow dairy in the middle of an airport," he describes it) even shabbier than his ethics. Unlike most noir detectives, he's not even proficient with his fists; he doesn't serve knuckle sandwiches, just eats them.

How a skid-row character like this makes an appealing or even interesting protagonist is a mystery far more puzzling than any of the cases Mason takes on, yet he does. Just as he did in his signature role as a ruthless KGB spy in The Americans, Matthew Rhys uses self-mocking wit and caustic charisma to make you love a guy who is not the least bit lovable. Perry Mason is the ugliest fun-to-watch show (or perhaps the funnest-to-watch ugly show, I don't know) since Showtime's cuddly serial-killer-next-door series Dexter left the air nearly a decade ago, and the cracked side of America's national psyche will be the better for it.

It helps that series creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones (whose previous producing credits include a lot of high-end TV like Friday Night Lights and Boardwalk Empire) have elected to set this Perry Mason in Depression-era Los Angeles, where the landscape—dappled with dazzling sunshine, big money, Hollywood salacity and police malfeasance—makes it the perfect backdrop for noir cynicism. Even the restaurants are sardonic: The show opens in one called Ptomaine Tommy's.

It's there that the Dodsons, a working-class couple, are waiting for the ransomed return of their abducted 1-year-old child, Charlie. What they get instead is his corpse—eyes sewn open to make it look more lifelike—and a horde of police investigators who think the whole thing was a scam-gone-wrong perpetrated by the couple themselves. A wealthy friend hires moneyed attorney Elias Birchard (John Lithgow) to conduct a private investigation, and he in turns puts Mason and his equally scruffy sidekick Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire), on the payroll for field work. Also helping and/or hindering the probe are Paul Drake (Chris Chalk, Gotham), one of the few black cops in the profoundly racist LAPD, and Della Street (Juliet Rylance, The Knick), Birchard's crime-busting receptionist.

Mason warns that the case is going to be a "long, long, deep, dark tunnel," and he's right; both Dodsons are lying to protect secrets, and police intransigence blocks the investigation at every turn. So does Mason's blotchy personal life. Though neither the novels nor the nine-season TV run of Perry Mason ever revealed much about the background or outside-the-office life of their hero, HBO's version is wildly confessional.

Mason has a vengeful ex-wife, a son he's not allowed to visit or even speak to, a girlfriend who may be a hooker, and a cow with a death wish. He's about to lose what remains of his home. He's got PTSD from World War I, when he was discharged from the army for some murky but apparently undistinguished reason. His investigations rely less on deductive skills than lockpicks and covert photography, and he lives by the motto, "Everybody's up to something, and everybody is guilty." When a coroner warns him that that the corpse he's about to view is "the worst thing you've ever seen," Mason bitterly retorts: "How do you know what I've seen?" In Perry Mason, you can always count on something worse.

NEXT: Swiss Cops Investigate 8-Year-Old Boy for Trying to Use Toy Money

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  1. Is it weird that I always thought Perry Mason was a private detective?

    1. He was a defense attorney who defended innocent clients and almost always got the real killer to confess in a dramatic line of questioning.

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      2. And Mason routinely employed the services of a private detective named Paul Drake, who in this show is a black LAPD officer. They have taken names from the original Perry Mason stories and assigned them to completely different characters. This Perry Mason sounds more like the original’s Paul Drake, if anything. Strange.

    2. At least the producers used a white actor, rather than cave to the black hysteria.

      1. Lol so casting a black person in a role is black hysteria now? Might want to check your White Supremacy.

    3. No, Quincy was a surgeon who was really a Private Dick.

  2. So if the premise of the series is complete different, and the character is completely different, is it really a “reboot”, or just a random series using the name to try to attract attention?

    1. Yep, sort of “click-bait-ish.”

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    2. This might be the only time the “reboot” literally just uses the names. Even the Bourne movies used elements of the amnesia stor.

    3. Pretty sure this is an in name only reboot lol. The both solve cases and that’s all they have in common. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad show, but it’s pretty dumb to make such a big change. The actor is really good though, so I’ll probably check it out. Obviously this critic went in with “i’m gonna rip this show a new asshole” colored glasses on and didn’t give it a chance from the first paragraph.

  3. Rhys was funny in his Archer episode also.

  4. Gee I was expecting Melissa McCarthy in the role.

  5. Can we expect that three out of four of the criminals he exposes are going to be rich evil businessmen in $1000 suits?

    1. Probably land developers

  6. He’s so squeaky clean that during hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor was able to cite Mason as her primordial source of legal thought without fear of scandal.

    I understand that, in the earliest of the original stories, Perry Mason wasn’t nearly so squeaky clean.

    1. True, true, true! That’s what I came to say. In the first dozen or two novels, he was always cutting corners illegally, squaring off with cops who backed down, etc. Those were written in the 1930s, maybe even the late 1920s, and after the war, Erle Stanley Gardner started cleaning up Mason to be more law abiding. Different times.

      One of the first TV episode had Mason shooting misleading rounds into a tree to confuse the cops. Maybe the first half dozen shows had things like that, but it was cleaned up pretty quickly. He was always sending clients out of town, but made sure they registered under their own name, but the illegal shenanigans disappeared.

      1. Let me add that I don’t remember a single bad Perry Mason novel or show from the original TV series. The plots were always clever as hell, always held together, always surprised me. The novels were page turners of the best sort. I like Sherlock Holmes for the same reasons, and detest Agatha Christie, whose mysteries seemed to me so poor that anyone could have been guilty right up until some last minute clue pointed the finger almost as if she reached her page limit and had to roll the dice to see who she would blame. Perry Mason stories never were like that.

        1. And and and … the biggest problem was the rushed timeline. Arrested Monday, trial on Tuesday, that kind of thing. He’d sort of get around it by usually only having a preliminary hearing instead of the full blown trial, but it was still rushed beyond reason … except everyone understood it was just to move the story along rather than wait through months of depositions and what not. I don’t know of any TV show or movie that doesn’t rush the time line.

  7. Are they at least going to use Ozzy’s song as the opening theme?

  8. Eh, the literary Mason wasn’t that clean. He usually skirted the law, thought blackmailers should be killed (though his own method to deal with them was to counter blackmail them).

  9. Anyway, while I guess they just wanted the branding of Perry Mason, he did have other characters. There was one private detective that used to be a lawyer but got disbarred and usually did shady stuff. He had a fat woman partner named Bertha.

  10. Cancelled. They should have made Perry a black trans woman. We don’t need any more white male heroes.

  11. I thought the original Perry Mason was already pretty gritty. Lots of violent crime and some tough questioning. Never sure why the real bad guys were so eager to confess in open court though. If you’ve killed someone, who’s worried about perjury charges?

  12. After watching Perry Mason and Petrocelli as a kid, I was sure the real job of a defense attorney was to find out who the real criminal was and get him to confess so you could get your client acquitted.

  13. How I loved loved loved The Americans. Incredible show and Mathew was terrific. I was a huge Perry Mason fan As a kid, but this show sounds like it’s going to be very strange.

  14. A ruthless KGB spy?

    Rhys’ character on _The Americans_ was anything but ruthless. He was the morally conflicted KGB spy, who was increasingly uncomfortable with his role and sought to abandon it. Keri Russell’s character was the ruthless one (if either was such).

  15. In the wold of movies, anything goes if you can sell it….I can watch and if I like it, I can record all the episodes and see them at my leisure….If I don’t like it, C’est la guerre………..

  16. This sounds like it would work as a comedy. In this case, it just sounds like another crappy HBO series that tries to see how many times it fit the word fuck into a 50-mimute episode.

  17. It would be nice if people who are intent on ripping off the atmosphere and tropes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett would just adapt the original material. It isn’t as if all of the previous attempts were spectacular disasters.

    OK, if you have a books as good and unique as L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, that’s one thing. But Perry Mason fits the Hard Boiled genera about as well as Winnie the Pooh fits slasher movies.

  18. They did the same thing to the reboot of the Spenser series/novels.

  19. Hello there

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