“Everybody’s up to something. Everybody’s got an angle, hiding something. And everybody is guilty.”
Every classic mystery fan is familiar with Perry Mason. You know, Perry Mason, the down-on-his luck private eye, the shambling alcoholic, the divorced dad who can’t afford to mail a Christmas present to his kid. The haunted World War I veteran discharged for “conduct unbecoming.” By night, he wallows in the seedy underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles; at sunrise, he staggers home to the family dairy farm, which is on the verge of being repossessed. You know, Perry Mason.
Anyone who comes to the new HBO series Perry Mason expecting anything like a faithful adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legal mysteries is setting themselves up for disappointment. Even in his early, more morally flexible years, the Mason of the books was never this sleazy. It’s not even clear whether this version of Mason is a lawyer at all—though, if he is, the dusty diploma glimpsed in one shot makes it clear that the law no longer figures in his life. What HBO has given us instead is a gritty period drama featuring a number of excellent character actors who rather distractingly call themselves “Perry Mason” and “Della Street.” Still, it offers a pretty good time for viewers who are up for something a little less like the Mason books and a little more like Gardner’s private-eye series Cool and Lam.
The episode opens with a striking pre-credits sequence, which begins in an empty apartment overlooking the Angel’s Flight funicular, a classic noir setting. The phone rings. A desperate couple, Matthew and Emily Dodson, are instructed to leave a suitcase full of money open in front of the window, where its contents can be seen from inside the passing funicular car. They will find their kidnapped child in that car. A joyous Emily runs to baby Charlie, only to discover that everything has gone horribly wrong.
(A word of warning: While Perry Mason contains all the expected violence, nudity, and adult language that HBO is known for, I did not expect to see [highlight for spoiler] a dead baby shown even once, let alone twice. For those wishing to avoid this experience, both shots are at least heavily telegraphed, so they can be avoided. Basically, any time you start asking yourself, “They’re not really going to show it, are they?”—they are going to show it.)
The introduction of Mason, played by Matthew Rhys, is meant to be more lighthearted. He and his partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) are following Chubby Carmichael, a Fatty-Arbucklesque film comedian. It’s the second scene of the episode and already the second betrayal of the night: the detectives were hired by Chubby’s own studio in the hopes of finding immoral conduct that will allow them to break his contract. And do they ever find it. This whole sequence is distasteful; it’s one long fat joke at Chubby’s expense. But what seems like a one-off scene will have darker repercussions down the line.
An exhausted Mason returns home to the broken-down farm he shares with two cows and an airfield. He perks up a little at the sight of his neighbor Lupe; we’ll later learn that the aviatrix shares a neighbors-with-benefits relationship with Mason, coming over whenever she’s in the mood for “someone good-looking and dumb.” On this particular morning, however, fate has something else in store for Mason. His old boss, attorney E. B. Jonathan (a natty John Lithgow) is waiting for him. One of Jonathan’s rich clients knows the Dodsons, and none of them believe the Los Angeles Police Department is up to the job of investigating little Charlie’s abduction. Mason is on the case, even if he does have to drop by the morgue to pick up a clean tie. That’s right, the personal effects of dead men are in better condition than Perry Mason’s everyday wardrobe.
Just as the viewer is beginning to wonder why this surly, unkempt alcoholic has so many friends, Jonathan’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) makes her first appearance. The two are clearly old friends, and Mason lights up around Della as they banter. For the first time, he shows a spark of curiosity and charm that suggest the man he might once have been. A later scene, with Mason, Della, and Jonathan brainstorming about the case, also offers a brief glimpse at a Perry Mason viewers might recognize, carried away by the pleasure of putting his mind to work on a complex problem.
The deeper he digs into the Dodson case, however, the more dangerous his position. In this first episode, Mason only scratches the surface of the crime, as the kidnapping of a grocer’s son attracts attention in high places—not only on earth, but in heaven, as several key figures in the case belong to the same megachurch, operated by a flamboyant female minister (Tatiana Maslany, channeling Aimee Semple McPherson).
Series premieres are always more about setting up the pieces than actually playing the game. This one does it better than most, seamlessly incorporating a lot of plot action among the exposition without seeming too crowded or rushed. Despite the shocking events of the plot, this feels grounded in a very real world, with lived-in settings and costumes and realistic interactions between the characters. There is the sense of a genuine, bustling city just outside the frame, full of people simply going about their lives.
While the world of the show is fully realized, in other ways the series is still finding its feet. I wish the tone had been less unrelentingly bleak. There are a few fun moments, like Strickland’s fixation on a serialized novel called Lipstick Girl, and Mason teasing Detective Holcomb about his terrible suspect sketch of the kidnapper (“Man in a hat? Really?”) that help break up the tension a little, and they are sorely needed. Hopefully there will be more of this in future episodes, as the wall-to-wall darkness is overpowering at times. It’s also understandable that the show would want to give Mason some kind of backstory, as he literally has none in the books. I’ve read dozens of Perry Mason novels and the most personal thing I know about him is that he loves steak. You can’t build a show around that. Not prestige TV, anyway. The new series takes the opposite tack, however, piling one trauma on top of another. Ninety percent of his past appears to have been revealed in the very first episode. Ironically, there’s little sense of mystery when it comes to Mason himself.
In fact, Mason’s behavior can be so dour and unpleasant in this first episode that it takes an exceptional actor to make him even tolerable. Fortunately, we have one. Matthew Rhys turns a bundle of clichés into a human being, showing Mason’s sadness and dysfunction without asking for the audience’s pity. Without saying a word, Rhys communicates that Mason is really listening and really seeing everything around him, as much as he wishes he didn’t have to.
This Mason would love to be the kind of blank slate portrayed in Gardner’s novels. He prefers to experience life through a camera lens or the bottom of a bottle. When he visits the Dodson house with Jonathan, Mason is considered so superfluous that no one notices him wandering off. He spots Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) sitting alone in her bedroom, lost in grief. Mason’s response? To take her picture and silently move on. He has no wish to experience strong emotion in person. Better to contain it safely within a photograph where it can be examined later, at a distance. Yet only a minute later, he shares one of his few personal moments with Emily. Their conversation is poignant precisely because it is so banal. For a few minutes, they are simply two parents exchanging small talk about their sons, pretending the little boys are not lost to them. Yet even during this sincere conversation, his detective instinct is working, gathering clues that Mason will harvest later. He simply can’t shut it off.
“You need to think about your actions,” Mason is warned at one point. “You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.” By the end of the episode, he has taken the first small step toward deciding. So, no, this is not the Perry Mason readers may be familiar with, but it looks like he might be on his way there. What the show delivers in the meantime is an enjoyably world-weary California noir that is shaping up to be an intriguing summer series.
Perry Mason airs Sundays at 9:00 pm on HBO and is available for streaming on HBO Max.