HBO review: 'Perry Mason' reboot is gratuitously gritty

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jul 05 2020 06:07 AM

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason

After graduating from reading the Hardy Boys mysteries, one of the next books I enjoyed a lot were the Perry Mason novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. 

Mason was a smart criminal defense attorney who came to the rescue of innocent people accused of crimes, usually murders. Together with his trusted secretary Della Street and his private investigator Paul Drake, Mason would be able to get his client off the hook by convincingly proving that someone else was the murderer.

For two episodes running now, there is a new series on HBO Go entitled "Perry Mason." In this current version set in the Great Depression, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) was a depressed and drunk detective, estranged from his family and suffering from PTSD following his service in the war. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) was the secretary of Atty. E.B. Johnson (John Lithgow), who hired Mason to investigate his cases. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) was a cop who could not rise in the ranks because he was African-American. 

There had been already been a long-running TV series from 1957 to 1966 (starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street) which was very faithful to the style of the books. Burr and Hale reprised their roles in a series of television movies of similar spirit which were released from 1985 up to Burr's death in 1993. This reboot is aiming for something different. So far, this is just Perry Mason only by name, but everything else about it is not the same as the books described anymore. 

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The atmosphere of the whole show was as dark and gloomy as the recesses of this Perry Mason's mind. This involved a working-class couple Matthew (Nate Coddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson, whose 1-year old son Charlie had been kidnapped. However, upon delivery of the $100,000 ransom, the infant was found to be dead. The couple was a member of the Radiant Assembly of God church under the charismatic leadership of preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Masley). One of the wealthy elders of the church, Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), hired Atty. Johnson and Mason to help them with their son's case.

In these first two episodes, we are still getting to know this version of Perry Mason, his flaws and the reasons behind these flaws. We see him as street-smart and manipulative to pry valuable clues out from the most unlikely sources. So far there has not even been any scene in a courtroom yet, which was unexpected for a series entitled "Perry Mason," but I look forward those scenes as they seem to be coming up soon. 

So far, I could call this show gratuitously gritty noir, unflinching from showing sex and violence at its darkest, dirtiest and most disgusting. The production values are topnotch yet the mood is generally grimy. Because this is set in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Golden Age Hollywood was a looming presence (with references to Fatty Arbuckle, Clark Gable and Groucho Marx), so that is interesting for me. However, the present murder case and the religion angle are not connecting so well with me yet.

With still six more episodes to go in this series, I am not yet sure if I will be hanging on until the end. Will they be sticking to just this one crime story, or will other more engaging angles come out later? Let's just see first where the next couple of episodes will take us. However, as of now its disloyalty to the source material is still eating at me. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."