Starring: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Shea Whigham, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, John Lithgow, Chris Chalk, and Tatiana Maslany
Written by: Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald, Steven Hanna, Sarah Kelly Kaplan, Eleanor Burgess, Kevin J. Hynes, and Howard Korder.
Based on Characters Created by Erle Stanley Gardener
Directed by: Timothy Van Patten & Deniz Gamze Erguven
Episodes 1-8 provided for review.
“Everybody’s up to something. Everybody’s got an angle, hiding something. And everybody’s…I mean, EVERYBODY is guilty.”
An unlikely heir apparent to True Detective rises in HBO’s adaptation of Perry Mason. Masterminded by the creatives behind Boardwalk Empire, Susan Downey, and Robert Downey, Jr (the latter of which serve as executive producers), HBO brings the procedural into the realm of prestige TV with a slick period piece full of piping hot pulp.
The year is 1932. The lie of the Gilded Age has cracked, America is on the tail end of a Great Depression and World War, and Perry Mason (a dogged but noble Matthew Rhys) is just looking to get paid, eeking out a living as a private investigator. A far cry from the cooly stoic defense attorney we know him as from the 50s and 60s.
However, his old mentor E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow playing to the back of the house) and confidant Della Street (a scene-stealing Juliet Rylance), pulls him into the case of a botched kidnapping. Mason, with his unbending search for justice and his heavy-fisted companion Pete Strickland (a hilariously caustic Shea Whigham), becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving high ranking LAPD detectives, a white-hot popular evangelist, and the broken mother of a slain child.
Very much the picture of “not your granddad’s Perry Mason,” Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald’s adaptation skews more toward the original Erle Stanley Gardner books and less toward the TV Land reruns of the Raymond Burr series. Perry Mason is aid out like a juicy “whodunnit,” then pivots to a thrilling courtroom drama, across eight highly watchable episodes. The scripts, along with keen period-accurate direction from Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Erguven, transport viewers to the rough and tumble 30’s LA as Mason and his compatriots fight for the freedom and exoneration of their client (GLOW’s Gayle Rankin in a gut-wrenchingly good, powerfully raw performance).
But while that might sound a little stock standard, especially for the wide-reaching genre it inhabits, Perry Mason shows it isn’t afraid to get a bit theatrical or timely. Examples of both come with the side plots involving Tatiana Malsany’s Sister Alice McKeegan and Chris Chalk’s Officer Paul Drake. While the former is embroiled in a fun mixture of Chinatown and Wise Blood, Chalk’s Paul Drake is facing something all too real and all too common throughout history; institutionalized racism. Particularly in the LAPD.
Chalk has been one of the best side-characters of a few shows now (HBO’s The Newsroom being the latest example), but his transition to full tilt lead in this is welcome and well-deserved. A transition, mind you, that Chalk handles effortlessly, as he starts the series as an honest, but cautious, honest cop in a sea of corruption only to join in with Mason and Della Street’s campaign to find just a bit of justice in the twisting, heartbreaking case of Emily Dodson.
So with an engaging watchability, A-game cast, and oddly endearing period details (like Pete and Perry taking turns reading newspaper prose serials to one another on stakeouts), Perry Mason is another slickly jeweled drama in the crown of HBO. Thanks to canny scripts and direction that calls to mind the best aspects of things like LA Confidential and various other Home Box Office staples, Perry Mason could very well be your next cable TV obsession.