Drunk? PTSD? This Show Is Perry Mason Like You’ve Never Seen Him Before – for Good and Bad

The new HBO period drama looks amazing and features some great performances, especially from John Lithgow, but only succeeds part of the time

Adrian Hennigan
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Matthew Rhys as the title character in HBO's lavish period drama "Perry Mason."
Matthew Rhys as the title character in HBO's lavish period drama "Perry Mason."Credit: Courtesy of HBO / Yes
Adrian Hennigan

HBO has been on a roll in recent months with brilliant shows like “I Know This Much is True” and “I May Destroy You.” A shame, then, that its new period drama, “Perry Mason,” is patchier than a roomful of folks trying to quit smoking.

I’ve always been wary of prequels in which everything we know about a beloved character is suddenly upended with the aim of jolting the viewer to attention. Blame it on a traumatic viewing experience in my youth – or, as it is referred to in my ongoing class action lawsuit against Hanna-Barbera, “The ‘Pup Named Scooby-Doo’ incident.”

I’m all-in on adaptations in which characters and settings are given a radical overhaul – go ahead, make Doctor Who a woman; update “Sherlock Holmes” to present-day London or New York City; heck, you can even make Jesus a white dude. Just don’t alter a beloved character’s core personality traits.

It’s way too easy to retrofit characters with traits that diametrically oppose everything we have come to love or loathe about them. But it would be a travesty of what went before, dramatically speaking, and a betrayal of all the work that inveigled a character into our hearts in the first place. That’s why Hannibal Lecter’s younger self in “Hannibal” didn’t become a vegan, or why “Young Sheldon” isn’t about a 9-year-old jock who doesn’t know his Asimov from his elbow.

Author Erle Stanley Gardner’s original “Perry Mason” detective thrillers have fallen out of favor over the years. He wrote more than 80 of them over four decades, up till his death in 1970, but good luck finding anyone under the age of 40 who can name any of them (hats off to anyone who says “The Case of the Careless Cupid” or any of Gardner’s other increasing alliterative titles, including “The Case of the Perjured Parrot” and “The Case of the Grinning Gorilla”).

Though the books largely gather dust on shelves these days, pretty much the entire world has seen or heard of the wholesome 1957-1966 TV show and the titular defense attorney (played by Raymond Burr) with an uncanny knack for unmasking guilty parties on the stand and getting his innocent – always innocent – clients off the hook.

John Lithgow and Juliet Rylance in "Perry Mason."
John Lithgow and Juliet Rylance in "Perry Mason."Credit: Courtesy of HBO / Yes

One of the show’s 271 episodes is doubtless screening somewhere in the world as you read this, and no self-respecting TV legal drama ever passes without the occasional reference to Perry Mason. Even the most recent season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” featured Richard Lewis criticizing Larry for “Perry Masoning” the former’s latest girlfriend, Carol.

This new adaptation of “Perry Mason” is not the first show to find its way to HBO after lingering for years in movie development hell (“Sharp Objects” and “Big Little Lies” are just two recent examples). Robert Downey Jr. eyed the title role as a starring vehicle as long ago as 2011, but he opts for a producing role here, letting Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) take center stage.

When you build your “series noir” around a private investigator operating on the mean streets of 1930s Los Angeles, you’re walking in the footsteps of giants – namely Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson. How does “Mason” compare? Let’s just say that after one episode I was ready to declare, “Forget it Jake, it’s not ‘Chinatown.’” And just in case you're not sure whether this show aspires to be TV noir, the ever-present sound of a doleful trumpet on the soundtrack confirms it.

Still, the show immediately looks the part, having seemingly spent most of its budget on ’30s-era cars, fedora hats, cigarettes and recreations of some of California’s finest-looking mansions. It really does look sensational – from the recreated Angels Flight Railway that plays a pivotal part in the opening episode to the climactic courtroom scenes with their obligatory flashbulb-popping photographers and hundreds of extras reacting uproariously to proceedings, in time-honored fashion.

It also presents us with an unrecognizable Perry Mason, who’s a dissolute drunk with career prospects as bleak as his moods. Sure, we can accept that we are encountering the man at his lowest ebb, in the early ’30s. (The first Mason novel, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” was published in 1933, and it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that it is referenced at the end of the final episode.)

The problem is that Mason’s personal issues come and go depending upon the whims of the screenwriters: After establishing him as a broke alcoholic and absentee father, living on a two-cow farm that also doubles as an airstrip, by episode two we see him haunted by hellish memories of the trenches of World War I. But having made a very strong case for Perry Mason, PTSD sufferer, all of that is jettisoned and never as much as hinted at again. Never has the phrase “episodic sufferer” been more apt.

Matthew Rhys in "Perry Mason." It's no "Chinatown."
Matthew Rhys in "Perry Mason." It's no "Chinatown."Credit: Courtesy of HBO / Yes

I only persevered with the show after that first episode because I was reviewing it. But then something strange happened: I absolutely loved the next three episodes, where the show becomes as much about the man hiring Mason – an attorney called “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow) – and Johnson’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as it does about the private eye and his misadventures with long-suffering sidekick Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham).

The peerless Lithgow is defending a young married man, Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry), who is accused of conspiring to kidnap his own baby son in order to secure a $100,000 ransom – a kidnapping whose tragic consequences provide the backdrop for the entire eight-part series. Each of Lithgow’s moments on screen are an absolute joy, especially his ego-driven clashes with the man prosecuting the case, District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root, having a fine old time in a role where subtlety is not required), and by themselves make “Perry Mason” worth watching.

So too does Tatiana “Orphan Black” Maslany, who exudes charisma by the bucketload as radio evangelist Sister Alice and whose Radiant Assembly of God church is at the heart of the mystery. The plotline involving Sister Alice becomes increasingly bonkers, though, leading to my interest waning in the final few episodes when the show becomes a more conventional courtroom drama. Such a mesmeric talent as Maslany deserves leading roles rather than supporting ones like this, where she drifts in and out of the storyline.

It also doesn’t help that the mystery at the heart of the show isn’t such a dramatic one, featuring no “Gotcha!” moments or anything to top the revelations in Polanski’s 1974 classic; this is more “China-hamlet” than “Chinatown.” Still, I guess we should be grateful there are no surprise sisters in “Perry Mason.”

Yet despite my reservations, there are enough enjoyable moments here to make “Perry Mason” worthy of eight hours of your summer viewing. And while it plays fast and loose with Mason’s own character, I loved how it turned the role of investigator Paul Drake – who provided the comic relief in the original show – into a black LAPD beat cop (Chris Chalk), having to come to terms with institutional racism and choosing whether he wants to be part of that system.

It’s also worth noting that Rhys is incapable of giving a bad performance, and is a hypnotic presence here as the “quarter-Welsh,” down-at-heel PI whose rule in life is that “there’s what’s legal, and there’s what’s right.” Of course, that’s something the “real,” squeaky-clean Perry Mason never would have said.

True cause for celebration

There were two big pieces of news for the Israeli television industry last week, but only one of them made me feel like celebrating. On Monday, it was announced that Amazon has commissioned an entire season of Jason Katims’ remake of the Israeli comedy-drama “On the Spectrum.” The original show, about three autistic roommates in a supported living apartment in Ramat Gan, has won several international awards and is available to view on the Yes English VOD channel.

A day later, it was revealed that Apple TV+ has bought the international rights to screen the new Israeli thriller “Tehran.” The eight-part series is about a female Mossad agent tasked with returning to her homeland, Iran, and disabling a nuclear reactor (who knew they had one, right?). The series debuts on Kan’s Channel 11 on Monday.

Niv Sultan in the series 'Tehran'
Niv Sultan in the series 'Tehran' Credit: Kan public broadcaster

This deal means that unlike “On the Spectrum,” viewers worldwide will get to see the original Israeli series rather than an almost certainly inferior remake – which to me is really worth celebrating.

Credit: Kan public broadcaster

Sure, the Amazon deal will presumably see some money coming into the beleaguered local TV industry (“On the Spectrum” was produced by Yes), but the problem with such deals was also highlighted the very same day the Amazon deal was announced: ABC canceled its version of the Israeli romantic comedy “The Baker and the Beauty” after just one season (nine episodes), due to it being one of the network’s lowest rated shows of the year.

In time-honored tradition, a petition has been launched in a bid to save the show, with the petitioners looking for 150,000 signatories (as of Sunday morning, it had almost 130,000 signatures) in the hope of finding another studio to produce a second series. Good luck with that.

Selling remake rights to Israeli shows generates great headlines in the local media, but that is all. “Betipul” and “Hatifum” blazed a trail for Israeli television with their successful remakes “In Treatment” and “Homeland” back in the day, but subsequent successes have been rarer than PPE at a Trump rally.

I cheer loudest when Israeli shows like “Tehran,” “Fauda,” “When Heroes Fly” and “Shtisel” get a chance to be seen by international audiences, not when the remake rights to the likes of “The Gordin Cell” and “Ramzor” get bought by American studios and the shows then disappear without trace globally.

“Perry Mason” premieres on HBO in the U.S. on Sunday. In Israel, it is available on Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Next TV and Cellcom TV from Monday. It airs on Hot HBO on Mondays at 10 P.M. (starting June 22), and on Yes Action and StingTV on Sundays (from June 28), also at 10 P.M.

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