In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Mondays, 2am, Sky Atlantic
The peak of Perry Mason’s fame has long passed. From his origination in the stories and movies of the 1930s, through the radio series of the 40s/50s and 50s/60s TV series with Raymond Burr to the 80s/90s TV movie revival of said series with Raymond Burr, the public’s familiarity with the dazzling defence lawyer is diminishing, as old age claims those who loved him when they were younger.
So to a certain extent, the makers of this prequel mini-series could do what they wanted – who remembers enough about Mason that they’ll quibble (or at least care about) the lack of faithfulness to the source material?
Even more so, the books at least are very unspecific about Mason and his background. There are a couple of references here and there, but for the most part, Mason is a cipher, an idea – he’s a lawyer on the side of good who’ll defend the innocent, investigate the truth and win all his cases, with the assistance of secretary Della Street and detective Paul Drake.
But given that those are the core ideas of Mason that those who know Mason will remember, you have to wonder why for this prequel Perry Mason mini-series, the show’s producers have opted to portray Mason as a Depression era, down-at-heel, hard-boiled, largely conscienceless private eye who exploits the weak and innocent and only shows up in a court room as a witness or defendant.
Couldn’t they just have adapted something by Dashiell Hammett instead? It’s not like they were stumped for options
The first episode sets the scene for the series and establishes Mason and the supporting characters. It’s 1932 and although the Great Depression has gripped the United States, Los Angeles is prospering thanks to an oil boom, the film industry, the summer’s Olympic Games, and a massive evangelical Christian revival.
Down-and-out private investigator Perry Mason (The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys) is retained for a sensational child kidnapping trial, but his investigation portends major consequences for Mason, his client and the city itself.
For the most part, though, that consists of Rhys skulking around through lovingly designed Boardwalk Empire sets, taking pictures of naked starlets and stars in flagrante delicto so he can blackmail them and their agents for a few hundred dollars. When they’re not shagging, he’s off for emotionally empty shags with Veronica Falcón (Queen of the South) or getting beaten up by people who don’t like him taking pictures of naked starlets.
He also does work for an attorney (John Lithgow), with the help of (yes) Della Street (Juliet Rylance), with the first episode’s case being the horrific kidnapping and murder of Nate Corddry (Harry’s Law)’s baby son. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is in there, too – novelly, he’s black, which is obviously timely and topical.
I am not the law
Against all that backdrop, Mason is frequently in court taking the stand because of his actions concerned with his farm. But that’s it. He’s not a lawyer. He’s not even trained as a lawyer. Which given he’s old enough to have fought in the Great War doesn’t give him much time to establish a dazzling legal career.
It also doesn’t give him much time to change the habits of a lifetime. There are hints already that Mason is reconsidering his chosen moral pathway in life and with future episodes featuring Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) as an evangelical preacher, it seems likely Mason is going to have a Damascene moment, probably on Sunset Boulevard.
But an eight-episode prequel mini-series designed to show the one specific incident that turned an amoral private eye into a tenacious public defender? I’m not sure what the point of that is, other than to break with the format of Perry Mason and not do a legal drama.
Dull, not brilliant
Equally, if you are going to do a period private eye drama featuring a brilliant (future legal) mind, at least try to make your show exhibit some signs of the qualities needed. Rhys’ Mason is dull in all senses of the word. He’s tenacious and happy to follow leads, but there’s no signs of wit, no real characteristics that make you think that one day, he’ll never lose a trial. He falls into easy traps and just glowers and is petulant. There’s no real seed to germinate, no hint of a caterpillar about to pupate.
The setting sure says LA Confidential but this is clearly not something to rival James Ellroy even on his worst, most hungover day. It’s just bleak, empty, nihilistic, dingy noire, without compensating dialogue or excitement, beyond a bit of nudity.
At least the sets and design are beautiful, even if the show’s soul isn’t. And that’s probably the best that can be said about the show, other than that the acting is first rate. There is a certain thrill just to see Mason, Street and Drake on our screens again, as well, if if they’re hard to recognise.
And maybe, just maybe, by the final episode, we’ll have seen how they’ve all magically transformed into the completely different people that at least some people will still know and love. But do I want to sit through another seven episodes of bleakness, sadism and staring into the Abyss to reach that point, when I’d rather have seen how Mason’s legal career started or how Street, Mason and Drake all met for the first time, if anything?
Not at all.