For starters, the guy’s got a farm. Matthew Rhys can wear a fedora like nobody’s business, but this is Perry Mason—Perry Mason, best known for dramatic courtroom interrogations and the occasional car chase. What’s he doing slopping buckets of milk around?
In a real flourish of late-stage Peak Content, HBO’s Perry Mason offers an eight-episode origin story for the famed lawyer/detective, set against a truly impressive recreation of Depression-era Los Angeles. The appeal of many detective stories is that the detective comes to us fully formed, a peerless investigator swinging in to solve the case. That’s how you get dozens of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes stories, or hundreds about Perry Mason—80-odd books from Erle Stanley Gardner and 271 episodes of the classic Perry Mason TV series, which ran from 1957 to 1966.
HBO’s younger and sexier Perry Mason is not about quantity. The series covers just one case in minute detail, from the gory particulars of a kidnapped and murdered baby to the corrupt cops, mysterious church, and sensationalist journalism that rounds out the mystery. Along the way, it shows us how Rhys’s Mason—rumpled, exhausted, and adept at worming his way into rooms he shouldn’t be in—transitions from a freelance investigator with a worthless piece of farmland to a lawyer with his own firm.
Strictly speaking, it works better than it should. There’s so much sunk into the production that the world of the show really comes alive, and the mystery is engrossing and unpredictable. The rotten underpinnings of LA’s criminal justice system resonate with what’s on the news today—and in creating a backstory for how Mason meets his investigator Paul Drake, the show finds a way to explore policing and race by casting Drake with a black actor, Chris Chalk. Proto-feminist Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is not just here to be flirted with; she advocates for the women in the story, especially the bereaved mother of the dead child, one Mrs. Dodson (Gayle Rankin). Shea Whigham fulfills his destiny by playing yet another sharp-eyed wiseguy in the American past. And John Lithgow is here too, in full stuffy-old-guy mode, as lawyer E.B. Jonathan.
Where the case gets most interesting is in its exploration of a zealous religious revival group led by a charismatic and unhinged young woman named Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her controlling mother (Lili Taylor). But the story doesn’t let us into their interior lives quite enough. It’s a glaringly deficiency, because the series spends altogether too much time wading in the shallows of the men’s feelings—be it Perry, E.B., or one of the dozen-odd suits that end up holding significant information.
Of course, it is a common trope in detective noir to hold women at arm’s length—particularly women that verge on the villainous. But Perry Mason seeks to reframe and update the perception of the ’30s by including references to the histories of queer characters and characters of color. Did this particular show’s femme fatale need to be so remote—or did its creators just not know what to do with her? Either way, the role seems like a waste of Maslany’s talents. Though the limited series ends with the rest of its main characters firmly ready to begin the next chapter of their lives, Sister Alice’s story trails off without much resolution.
That’s the oddest thing of all about this melancholic mystery tinted with that ubiquitous, prestige-y gray-and-blue palette: It ends with a beginning. It’s an eight-episode limited series that feels like a long pilot for the real Perry Mason—a series that seems poised on the verge of existence, now that all of the characters (especially Perry himself) have figured out what they’re doing here. I haven’t the slightest idea what the point is of producing an origin story miniseries that comes more than 50 years after the existing intellectual property’s series finale. It feels like there’s at least another season in Rhys’s dog-tired, sad-eyed Mason, squaring off against the district attorney (Stephen Root) and his not-all-that-he-seems deputy (Justin Kirk). But as they say, this isn’t TV: it’s … HBO, I suppose.
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