Perry Mason

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Matthew Rhys in Perry Mason.
Matthew Rhys in Perry Mason.
Photo: M-Net


4/5 Stars


Before Perry Mason became one of TV's greatest attorneys, he was a low-level private investigator with a shattered family life, a loose sense of morals and a level of self-destructiveness that made him perfect for a career where getting smacked, beaten and knocked unconscious is part of the job description.

When the horrific case of a kidnapping gone very wrong finds its way onto the desk of E.B. Jonathan, a defence attorney who is both something of a father figure to Mason and a constant source of work for the erstwhile PI, Mason will need to reckon with his past, present and future in a case that will fundamentally change the course of his life forever.


Perry Mason has been the subject of enough reboots, television specials and special reunions to make the likes of Dr Who and Star Trek look like quick flashes in a pan. Not that the good lawyer can hope to match the cult appeal of either of those shows, but if you want a single property to best represent the long evolution of television as a storytelling medium, Perry Mason is undoubtedly your man.

The original series, based on the detective novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, starred Raymond Burr as Mason and ran from September 1957 through May 1966 on CBS. It was nothing less than the very first hour-long weekly drama to be commissioned and filmed for what was then the brand new medium of television. It set the stage for so much of what was to come, and Perry Mason became one of the most famous figures in television history.

You needn't have seen a single episode of any of the original series or the countless reboots, returns and TV films that followed throughout the rest of the century (I'm reasonably sure I haven't) to still have at least heard the name "Perry Mason". And that includes South Africans, for who television only entered the scene more than two decades after the original series aired its final episode.

It's fitting then that Perry Mason should get his shot at "premium TV" and there's still probably none more premium than HBO. Would there still be a place for a character that is basically the Superman of defence attorneys in today's more cynical world on a cable network that made its name on caustic comedies and gritty dramas? Surely what was groundbreaking in 1950 can't possibly still be so as we stumble our way into the third decade of the 21st century?

As it turns out, Perry Mason's idealistic practice of the kind of law that genuinely favours truth, justice and the American way (the Superman comparisons are nowhere near as fatuous as they may first appear) isn't just a tolerable anachronism in these troubled times. It is a much-needed dose of idealism in a year when so much of what we once took for granted has been cut off at the knees.

Now, to anyone who has seen the first three episodes of HBO's Perry Mason that have aired on Showmax at the time of writing, you're probably wondering just what the hell show I'm watching. And you're not wrong. This new Perry Mason embraces both the similarly uncertain times of the early 1930s that was the setting for the original books, and the classic film noir trappings of so many films from that period, and injects it with all the violence, profanity and grit that both HBO and "premium" streaming TV seem to revel in. This ain't your great grandaddy's Perry Mason and, boy, do its creators, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones (Boardwalk Empire, Weeds, Westworld), let you in on this fact very, very quickly.

The first episode of HBO's Perry Mason, in particular, is a major shock to the system. Sex, nudity, tons of swearing and some genuinely grizzly and upsetting violence make the entire first episode a fairly unpleasant watch. I'm hardly a prude, but all the "adult content" in the first episode just reeks of "try hard" desperation and gratuitous shock value. I certainly wouldn't blame anyone for giving up on the show there and then but, without giving away any spoilers, I can pretty much guarantee the show becomes far more entertaining as it goes along.

There is a certain hard-boiled edge to the show throughout, but it also ultimately ends up with an infectious tone that so brilliantly balances the hopeful with the cynical; the funny with the tragic; and – best of all – the down to earth with the deliciously pulpy.

Over its opening eight episodes, Perry Mason 2020 may start off looking like yet another cynical take on a beloved property, but as it goes along, it becomes increasingly clear that Fitzgerald and Jones are doing something else entirely. Far from being the bitter, even disrespectful "update" that it first suggests itself to be, this new Perry Mason revels in both the character's noir roots and in the original show's formulaic courtroom drama, and around episode three or four, this starts to become very, very clear. The weird tonal shifts, the half dozen seemingly disconnected storylines, the decidedly anti-heroic title character – it all starts to make sense. What once seemed to be an uneven mess suddenly starts to reveal itself as a rich, if sometimes contradictory, stew of ideas, emotions, characters and themes that gets tastier the longer it cooks.

Between the many hard-boiled clichés on the one side and the triumphantly familiar courtroom dramatics on the other, Fitzgerald and Jones cram so much into each episode that even if the pacing is technically very slow (the entire plot of this eight-part opening season would easily have fit into a single episode of earlier incarnations of Perry Mason), each episode feels like a filling, well-rounded meal.

Each episode moves the story forward by inches, but with its interest in everything from racial injustice to the bizarre but endlessly fascinating Christian-revivalist movement (or at least the particularly and ecstatically American version of it), there's always far too much to chew on to ever begrudge it its meandering nature. Plus, everything about the show is so atmospheric that its something of a pleasure just to kick back and lose yourself in the hyper-real world created by the series' massively talented cinematographer, composer and production crew.

As is always the case with any halfway decent serialised television show though – and I honestly don't think there are any exceptions to this rule – the sole reason why any of this actually works is the characters who inhabit the world of Perry Mason – not least, Perry Mason himself. With its murderers' row of A+ level "character actors" bringing their A++ game to a wide variety of beautifully drawn roles (seriously, even in an era of excellent ensembles, the level of acting talent assembled for Perry Mason is just insane), it would be easy to write a page each on the dozen or so most memorable characters here.

I can go on for days about the always sublime Tatiana Maslany and her perfect portrayal of the enigmatic Sister Alice or Stephen Root's skin-crawlingly slimy lawyer, Maynard Barnes, but for the sake of brevity, I'll focus on the two or three standouts from a cast of nothing but standouts. I don't believe I've ever heard of Juliet Rylance before as I've never watched The Knick or American Gothic (at least not that one) but she is probably the breakout star here as E.B. Jonathan's (John Lithgow) long-suffering assistant, who is the irresistible heart of the show.

Speaking of Lithgow, I'm actually not going to speak anymore of Lithgow's E.B. except to say that this might just be the greatest work he has ever done in a long and fairly spectacular career. It's hard not to notice the late-period renaissance that Mr Lithgow has been enjoying over the past few years but… bloody actual hell is he spectacular here.

And then, finally, there's Matthew Rhys as our eponymous hero. There's so much going on with this character and this performance that I can't hope to encapsulate it all in a few hundred words, but for all that Rhys may hail from Wales, I can't think of another modern thespian who so perfectly captures the spirit of old Hollywood noir actors – Humphrey Bogart, in particular. This is exactly the sort of role that would have attracted Bogie back in the day, and Matthew Rhys has no problem whatsoever in stepping into those particular boat-sized shoes. More than just grizzled charisma, though, Rhys – a veteran of prestige television and movies – brings real complexity, warmth and humanity to what is already a classic TV character, even independent of the long history of his predecessors.

I am very, very close to giving this surprisingly terrific Perry Mason update a full five-star recommendation but the first episode really is a bit of a problem. Persevere through a slow and sometimes iffy start, though, and you'll quickly discover one of the year's very best – and most cinematic – television shows. 


Perry Mason airs Tuesdays at 22:00 on M-Net (DStv 101) and available on Showmax at 23:00.


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