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Review: HBO gives ‘Perry Mason’ a superhero’s origin story. He didn’t need one

Matthew Rhys takes the title role in HBO's "Perry Mason," a new take on Erle Stanley Gardner's defender of the innocent.
(Merrick Morton / HBO)

And so another old crime show is brought down from the attic, dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint. “Perry Mason,” which most famously ran from 1957 to 1966 on CBS, with Raymond Burr as the infallible defender of the defenseless, is back as a long-arc HBO series. Unusually, the strategy has been not to modernize the setting, but to backdate it, to 1932, the year before Erle Stanley Gardner published his first Perry Mason novel and retired from the law. (Gardner himself was a bit of a Mason in his day, defending immigrants and helping found the Court of Last Resort, a shoe-leather forerunner of the Innocence Project.)

It is an origin story, and so Perry — if I may call him Perry — is not yet the attorney he will become.

With his wide shoulders and kind eyes, Burr’s Perry was the still center around whom the melodrama swirled, displaying emotions no hotter than the furrowing of a brow, some contemplative hand rubbing, or a marginal increase in the volume of his voice. He was a rock, and the trial scenes, pitting Mason against the same opponent week after week — excitable Dist. Atty. Hamilton Burger, with perennially mistaken Lt. Tragg usually at his elbow — almost an abstraction. Juries were never to decide his cases, as a confession from the stand reliably arrived minutes before the last commercial break. (There is a clever joke about that in the new show.)

Gardner’s Mason (and Burr’s) was always an enigma, not so much a man of mystery as a person whose personality didn’t enter into it; like Jack Webb’s Joe Friday, he is there to ask questions, a metaphorically masked superhero without an alter ego. The creators of this reboot, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, who have “Weeds” and “Friday Night Lights” in their shared resume, have filled that empty vessel to the brim with biographical details, psychology and a little sex.

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From ‘Law & Order’ to ‘Cops,’ we’re at a moment of reckoning for the depiction of police on TV. But change will require us to stop lionizing rogues and scamps.

Tatiana Maslany pays Sister Alice, an evangelist modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson, in HBO's "Perry Mason."
( Merrick Morton / HBO )

New Perry, in the lean and hungry-looking person of Matthew Rhys, is a former farm boy, living with a skinny cow on what remains of his parents’ spread. The old Mason place is now backed up against an airfield, whose proprietor, Lupe (Veronica Falcón), wants to buy the property from him; meanwhile, they sleep together, noncommittally. Perry has an ex-wife and a 9-year-old son living in Salinas and a single suit in need of a good cleaning. (Lacking a tie without a mustard stain, he hits up a friend in the coroner’s office to see what effects the dead might have left behind.) He had some bad times in World War I, which haunt him in flashbacks. He is drunk between hangovers and perennially unshaven, like a Halloween hobo.

As if to include as many definitions as possible of the word “grubby,” Perry is working as a low-rent private eye. “You need to think about your actions; you need to decide what kind of person you want to be,” chides a Hollywood executive who has employed him to tail a Fatty Arbuckle-esque comedy star, when Perry tries to enlarge his fee with a little blackmail. Studio goons beat him up, by way of further reply, beginning something of a series-long theme.

Into this literal mess steps attorney and old family friend Elias Birchard ‘E.B.’ Jonathan, (John Lithgow), who enlists Perry to look into the death of a kidnapped infant, on behalf of one Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), one of those wealthy types who have a habit of turning up in stories like this. Baggerly is acting on behalf of the baby’s parents (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), fellow followers of Sister Alice (a highly committed Tatiana Maslany), an evangelist modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson, minus the husbands and the scandals — also the inspiration for a major character in the recent “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.” Lili Taylor plays her mother, Birdie, who has a historical antecedent of her own. The series takes them seriously, when they might easily have been turned into grotesques, or a joke, and the well-realized scenes of Sister Alice’s flamboyant services faithfully echo what we know of McPherson’s.

Los Angeles history — in particular its Mexican and Chicano culture and folklore — is at the heart of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.”

Chris Chalk plays Paul Drake, an L.A. police officer with a different view of a case in HBO's "Perry Mason."
(Merrick Morton / HBO)

Yes, yes, you say, but what of Della Street? What of Paul Drake? Della (Juliet Rylance) is here, introduced as Jonathan’s legal assistant, and she is given an identity, and a sexual identity — a woman before her time not content to wait for time to catch up with her and seemingly the inventor of jury analysis. The third major canonical character, investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), will arrive as a Black L.A. police officer whose rising level of disgust with his superiors, along with certain things he has uncovered regarding the case at hand, will usher him eventually onto Team Mason. Shea Whigham plays Pete Strickland, Perry’s slightly less upright investigative subcontractor, original to this series.

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Where the police and prosecutors in the old “Perry Mason” are well-meaning and honorable, if nearly always wrong, here they form a familiar coterie of self-serving bad actors, with a sprinkling of better bad actors for contrast. (Stephen Root, in a pencil mustache as D.A. Maynard Barnes, is the series’ puffed-up personification of official rot.) The seedy underbelly of sunny L.A. is a bit of a cliché by now, but “Perry Mason” handles it pretty well, and with some scholarly affection. (A high five to the location scouts and production designers and researchers.) Locals with a liking for history may nod knowingly to references to “a swell diner down on Larchmont,” “the French dip at Philippe’s,” gambling boats and the alligator farm. Angels Flight is nicely represented in its old practical application, serving a Bunker Hill long since plowed under. Musso and Frank Grill, 101 this year, serves as the setting for two different restaurants.

This being “Perry Mason” and not just any old period detective story — though the series functions effectively enough at that level, and Rhys does make a fine bedraggled shamus — it is no spoiler to say that before the season’s eight episodes have been discharged, Perry will be arguing a case in court, and that his transformation from human dishrag to natty legal eagle is accomplished with almost supernatural ease.

Juliet Rylance plays Della Street, a woman with a natural bent for the law in HBO's "Perry Mason."
(Merrick Morton / HBO)

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“What do I know about the law?” he asks Della, not unreasonably, after she has suggested he might be fit for it.

“More than you think.”

“Or nothing.”

“Somewhere in the middle.”

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The series, which ultimately feels like the very long pilot for what could make a fine series yet to come, is easily enjoyable, nicely played and smartly designed, with some well-executed big set pieces; it is also occasionally unpleasant, a little nutty toward the end and too long and too busy for the material. By the time the last loose threads are tied, mostly in expected knots, you may find your emotional investment has dwindled considerably, or even that, among its many sidestreams and back stories, you have forgotten what the point was. There is a modicum of HBO Brand Sex ’n’ Nudity, a noticeable lot of cursing — par for the premium cable course, of course, but strictly speaking, unnecessary — and, more arresting, the N word, once from a Black character and once from a white one. There are times, to be sure, when its use might be justified, but that does not really apply here — this is just an ephemeral crime show, and no shame in that. The effect is merely to take you out of the scene and into the writers’ room.

‘Perry Mason’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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