TV review: HBO’s Perry Mason prequel actually works

Matthew Rhys may not look or sound anything like Raymond Burr's unbeatable defense attorney, but he makes the role his own in this gritty reboot

PERRY MASON (Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald). Sundays at 9 pm on HBO Canada and Crave Movies from June 21. Rating: NNNN

Of all the legacy programs I never expected to see rebooted for the age of Peak TV, Perry Mason was… well, it wasn’t even on the list, because I’d more or less forgotten it ever existed.

For those of you born after the golden age of syndication, Perry Mason was a long-running legal procedural – adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner’s even longer-running series of books – starring Raymond Burr as the world’s greatest defense attorney, a fellow of prodigious acumen and cunning who specialized in breaking witnesses on the stand and always, always found a way to get his clients out of whatever jam in which they’d found themselves.

The show’s legacy was eventually overshadowed in boomers’ hearts by Matlock, which was even folksier and more predictable and starred that nice Andy Griffith, and then by Law & Order, which introduced lawyers whose personal demons reared their head about once every three episodes. But there was a time when Perry Mason set the standard for TV legal drama. It was appointment viewing, even if you knew how every episode was going to end.

Perry’s back now, in a reformulated version designed to be more palatable to HBO viewers looking for a prestige drama that dares to get its hands dirty, as well as certain other body parts. The new Perry Mason miniseries, which premieres Sunday (June 21) at 9 pm, is an origin story, starting from zero in order to build him up again. And whaddaya know, it works.

There’s barely a trace of Raymond Burr’s steely crusader in Matthew Rhys’s self-destructive young Perry, introduced here as a war veteran, deadbeat dad and two-bit private investigator doing his best to drown his self-loathing (and his PTSD) in booze, Prohibition or no. But when a sensational infant murder shakes 30s Los Angeles, Perry is pulled into the case – and, because he can’t help doing the right thing when it needs to be done, towards his destiny as an officer of the court.

Written by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, the reboot gives the property the full Boardwalk Empire treatment, juicing its period story by amping up the sex, violence and language. (The first episode tries a little too hard to shock, if I’m being honest director Tim Van Patten finds a better balance of sacred and profane as the series progresses.)

More to the point, the episodes – which run around a full hour apiece, some even nudging past that mark – let all of the characters breathe, giving our hero and his colleagues – including Juliet Rylance’s unflappable Della Street and Chris Chalk’s righteous Paul Drake – very good reasons to push back against an apathetic justice system.

Throw in Tatiana Maslany as a radio preacher with a very specific sense of her divine mission, and GLOW’s Gayle Rankin as a shattered mother on trial for murder, and you’ve got yourself a reboot with real potential. This version of Perry Mason is handsomely produced, elegantly paced and plummily acted, a deliberate throwback that understands the pleasures and comforts of the procedural format.

I could watch an entire season of John Lithgow and Stephen Root’s rival attorneys plotting to spring procedural gambits upon one another from behind their burnished wooden desks, or a spinoff where Shea Whigham’s self-proclaimed degenerate investigator follows his nose wherever it leads him.

I have to hand it to Rhys, who looks and sounds nothing at all like the imposing Burr but makes the character feel like a rough draft of that actor’s interpretation: Rhys turns his skill at self-abasement – refined over all those seasons of The Americans and applied perfectly opposite Tom Hanks in last fall’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood – to give Perry an undercurrent of self-loathing that makes him feel like an underdog even when he’s the sharpest man in the room.

And yes, the use of “man” is intentional: Rylance’s Della is always sharper, but she’s grown used to being ignored. That’s another little detail Jones and Fitzgerald weave into the fabric of their story. This version of Perry Mason is determined to notice all the cultural elements that previous iterations blew past, acknowledging marginalized and racialized characters and the spaces they occupy in the story.

Yeah, it’ll likely be mocked in some quarters for that. But surely a show called Perry Mason is obliged to point out what others would prefer to overlook.


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