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HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ reboot is more ‘True Detective’ than legal thriller

HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ reboot is more ‘True Detective’ than legal thriller

HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ reboot is more ‘True Detective’ than legal thriller
July 02
18:39 2020

Content warning: Discussion of suicide and infanticide

“The Devil put Charlie Dodson in this box. He flew up from Hell, walked to our streets and laid his violent hand on this child’s head. Beatitudes for this day. Blessed be the police who will gather evidence against the Devil. Blessed be the attorneys who will prosecute the Devil. Blessed the jury who will convict the Devil! Blessed be the judge who will sentence the Devil! Blessed be the hangman who will snap this Devil’s neck! Blessed be the gravediggers who will bury this Devil a thousand feet deep and blessed be the worms who will eat this Devil’s flesh and disappear from the Earth! This is the work of the Lord! You do this work for little Charlie Dodson!”

So, HBO has aired the first two episodes of it’s eight-part “Perry Mason” reboot, produced by Team Downey, directed by “Boardwalk Empire,” veteran Tim Van Patten and starring Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk and John Lithgow among others. While the Raymond Burr-starring legal drama may have informed all preconceived notions of the character, this show strips most of that away for a hardboiled tale of corruption and melancholy in early 1932, Depression-era Los Angeles and the heyday of the Pulps. Which is fitting, considering Mason’s literary origin as a more Sam Spade-esque character willing to skirt the law for his clients.

Still, the shift is drastic when it comes to Matthew Rhys’s take on the character — a no-nonsense, hostile and often drunk private investigator whose mouth and attitude gets him in trouble with his clients and the law. While viewers never learned Mason’s background in the original Burr production, this Mason is a traumatized WWI veteran who lost custody of his son to his ex-wife and is pissed off at the world. His investigative method is also the best kind of hardboiled, working solely with whatever he can — lockpicking, a cheap camera, officials who he has to bribe and theory-crafting that doesn’t always hold up. The Mason of this reality is a flawed man whose layers are slowly peeled by the show as it goes on.

The other big shift is the tone — very James Ellroy-inspired and very, very disturbing as established by the opening, when two parents negotiate a kidnapping ransom for their infant son who they find dead and with eyes stitched open. We’re shown the corpse twice — once when they discover it and later in the morgue, where the lack of blood and rigor mortis sets in and Perry has to cut out one of the stitches holding open its eyes. Then there’s the following scene where Mason catches two movie stars in coitus involving food,  which just honestly didn’t need to be in there and indulges the most overused kind of fat jokes.

Yeah, the shown doesn’t shy away from grisly images, with an especially graphic depiction of a seeming suicide-by-shotgun in episode two that is a marvel of practical FX work. Much like fellow HBO drama “I May Destroy You,” the show has no illusions about its subject matter and grounds it in realistic human misery and melancholy. There are scenes where characters aren’t really doing anything, yet there’s an undeniable sense of sadness and world fatigue. Sadly, it doesn’t quite kick in until the ending of the first episode.

Yet, the show steps up big by the next episode, where Mason begins the long process of unraveling the stories of suspects and witnesses. The show introduces Maslany as Sister Alice after the buildup in the first episode and Chris Chalk as Officer Paul Drake, who’ll I talk more about in a bit. The character building continues, more questions are raised without becoming convoluted (a big problem with a lot of these kinds of shows) and the ending had me wanting more, which is a great sign after the pilot left me kind of cold.

And the improvement is carried by the other major players — Lithgow is great, as always, as Mason’s boss E.B. Jonathan, a seasoned and patient D.A. who’s weary of the world and trying to keep his team together in the face of the district attorney’s corruption. Rylance also carries a couple of scenes as Della Street, E.B.’s loyal secretary who’s also unafraid to mouth off and possesses a humanistic intellect strong enough to crack some of Mason’s own theories.

Then there’s the two characters introduced in episode two — Maslany’s Sister Alice and Chris Chalk‘s Paul Drake. Maslany intrigues as a theatrical preacher who headlines the mysterious megachurch, the Radiant Assembly of God, which seems to have more than meets the eye brewing under the surface. However, I think Chalk will probably steal a few scenes away from the bigger players — his portrayal of Drake, a Black police officer dealing with corruption and racism in the LAPD, subtly shows he’s an intelligent and keen observer who is set to unravel more threads of the conspiracy as the plot progresses.

Another scene stealer Shea Whigham, one of the definitive “Oh, I’ve seen him before” guys, is also great as the “degenerate” Pete Strickland, Mason’s partner and mentor. He’s an entertaining character whose sleaze and hypocrisy is balanced by his genuine detection skills and banter with Perry. In fact, the character banter, which is shown better in episode two, is pretty solid, with witty remarks, people getting tired with each other’s tomfoolery and a few moments of intimacy and emotional dynamism.

Accompanying all of this is a phenomenal score by master musician Terence Blanchard, who has also scored last year’s “Harriet,” “BlacKkKlansman” and this year’s excellent “Da 5 Bloods.” Shame on me for not discussing his score for that, by the way, since he’s been killing it so far. The overall feel is a classic Hollywood orchestra mixed with jazz flourishes as if Blanchard stepped out of noir’s golden age to show everyone how to do it. Easily some of, if not the, best compositions on TV this year.

Last of note is the title design — whenever the title card shows up, it is sort of integration between the background and the foreground, and episode two has one pretty creative example where Mason, a couple of bums and a three-legged dog overtake some of the design. It’s hard to describe without actually showing it in action.

While it may diverge too far for some from the most popular incarnation, HBO’s “Perry Mason” is shaping up to be solid for the summer. With promising improvements already in its second episode, those looking for an engaging mystery are sure to be satisfied, even if ole Perry Mason’s looking nearly unrecognizable.

Stay tuned for the full season review for a final rating.

Featured image: Courtesy HBO

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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