HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ Falls Into a Prestige-TV Trap

For much of its debut eight episodes, Perry Mason feels of a piece with other efforts to “update” classic characters by amping up the edginess and the grotesquerie. The BBC’s recent adaptations of Agatha Christie novels abandoned the genteel chintz-and-cucumber-sandwiches vibe of classic Christie in favor of fetid skeevery and outlandish reinvention. (Hercule Poirot, played in one recent outing by John Malkovich, was revealed to have once been a priest who witnessed his entire congregation get murdered during World War I.) With the dour pallor of Zack Snyder superhero movies and the bleak brutality of Lars von Trier, these kinds of stylistic attempts to modernize existing intellectual property tend to miss that what’s most current about beloved crime fiction has actually been there all along.

In the case of Perry Mason, the character is a kind of superhero, working not in consort with law enforcement but against the corrupt cops of the Los Angeles Police Department. Long before Cops inflated police officers into valiant protectors of public safety, and before Law & Order reimagined defense attorneys as sneering, avaricious twisters of truth, Perry Mason stood for the idea that people could be wrongly accused of crimes by a fractured legal system more concerned with closing cases than upholding justice. And he accepted shades of gray within his work, rather than imposing clear delineations between heroes and villains. “I’m a paid gladiator,” Mason tells Della in the first Perry Mason novel, 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws. “I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out.”

Raymond Burr as the titular defense lawyer in the CBS version of Perry Mason (Everett)

The idea that flawed people have as much right to a fair and balanced legal system as the morally unimpeachable is still novel enough, at this particular moment, to feel radical. As is the notion that cops—the people charged and empowered with upholding the law—can be as flawed and corruptible as anyone else. Structurally, the new Perry Mason seems to recognize this. Its portrayal of the LAPD is a sordid one, in which the police have become a mafioso-like organization willing to do anything for the highest bidder. There are occasional exceptions—Chris Chalk plays Paul Drake, the downtown district’s lone black officer, who’s shown defusing violence in one scene that feels strikingly resonant—but for the most part, rot has pervaded the institution. (Chalk, it’s worth noting, brings complexity to a character who could otherwise fit easily into a trope.)

It’s no coincidence that the series seems to find its stride in the final four episodes, when the focus turns to the courtroom. The first Perry Mason series grounded itself in a rigid formula, which procedurals have mimicked to some success ever since. Inevitably, a crime is committed, a client is introduced, and the second half of each episode is preoccupied with a trial, during which Mason manages not only to successfully defend his client but also to implicate the person who’s actually guilty. Each case is satisfyingly set up, complicated, and concluded in less than an hour. The new Perry Mason, though, abandons one formulaic genre for another, in this case the saggy, ponderous, narratively inert eight-episode prestige drama. The entire season is occupied with a single case: the murder of a kidnapped baby and the trial of that baby’s mother, Emily Dodson (played by Gayle Rankin).