Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions
The name Perry Mason first became known to television fans in 1957 with Raymond Burr as the titular character. The Emmy award winning show ran for nine years on network television with Burr in the role of Mason for its entire run.
In its original incarnation, Perry Mason was a defense attorney who defended clients who were wrongly accused. The show was a crime mystery/courtroom drama. Each week Mason would solve the mystery, win the case for this client, and bring the real perpetrators to justice. After going off the air in 1966, the series was revived in 1973 but was met with lackluster reception.
Now the series has been rebooted once again, this time by HBO with Matthew Rhys as Mason. This is a very different series from the original. It’s an origin story that delves deep into Perry Mason’s past and his start as an investigator for E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), an older defense attorney who has lost a step or two since his heyday. Instead of being a formulaic episodic, this version of the show decides to draw its story out over nine episodes.
This is also the rated R version of Perry Mason complete with sex, violence, and profanity (it’s not TV. It’s HBO). In the 1930s, when we meet Perry, he’s at a crossroads in his life. He lives alone, has no real relationships, and is still struggling with PTSD from WWI. He’s rough around the edges, hot-headed, impatient and drinks too much, but he is good at what he does.
Matthew Rhys first became known to American audiences as the co-lead of The Americans alongside his wife Kerry Russell. On The Americans, we got to see a wide array of characters from Rhys as a Russian spy embedded in the US. As Phillip, Rhys was continually donning a variety of disguises and altering his voice to fool and manipulate his targets and evade capture. The show was an acting Olympics for Rhys and Russell, who led the show to the Golden Globe for Best Series in 2019. As we’ve seen in The Americans, there’s no doubt Rhys can do just about anything.
In Perry Mason, Rhys is surrounded by a strong ensemble with Juliet Rylance as Della Street, Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, Shea Wigham as Pete Strickland, and the aforementioned John Lithgow. One thing you can say about all of these actors, with the possible exception of Lithgow, is that they are all underrated.
Juliet Rylance brings a lot of nuance to Della Street, a role played by Barbara Hale in the original series which earned her an Emmy. Rylance is the perfect counterbalance to Rhys’s Mason. She’s strong and takes no guff even when he’s enraged. She’s the voice of reason for him, and we can see that Mason will learn a lot from the more experienced Street.
Chris Chalk started off as a supporting player on shows like Newsroom and is given a lot more to work with here. This update of the Paul Drake character is given real depth from Chalk and from the writing. He’s a police officer of color in the 1930s, a situation that was far from easy. We see him struggle as he attempts to provide for his wife and future child while being forced to make the choice between loyalty to a corrupt system or breaking away and serving justice. Chalk is remarkable in the role, showing us the conflict of a man who wants to speak out but is forced to hold his tongue.
Shea Wigham has done some amazing work for HBO in both Boardwalk Empire and True Detective. There is an unmistakable realism to his work and Pete Strickland is no exception. As Mason’s investigator, he is sometimes reduced to the role of exposition provider, but even when he’s merely dispensing information, we can see his attitude and point of view.
The cast is rounded out by a strong ensemble which includes: Lilly Taylor, Stephen Root, Robert Patrick, Gayle Rankin, and Tatiana Maslany, all of whom are playing at the top of their game. The series gives each one a chance to shine with real character development over the course of the first season.
While its strongest suit is probably its ensemble, Perry Mason’s weakest asset is its pacing. It’s an origin story which has the burden of having to show the present action of the plot as well as the flashbacks and origins of not just Perry, but the rest of his team. From the origin, we get a great character like E.B. Jonathan (Lithgow), but we also get a longer, more drawn out story.
At times the mystery plot takes a backseat to show how Perry Mason came to be. Season one starts off well but gets a bit bogged down in the middle episodes only to pick up again in the last few episodes where it crams in some much-needed excitement and plot development. This is really the only negative about it. Every other element, from the cast to the production and costume design to the cinematography, are all excellent.
HBO spares no expense on production value. In Perry Mason, we get a period piece in a world that feels real and lived-in. We’re presented an America healing from one war and unknowingly about to head into another. Seeing the time and attention put into season one should make fans hopeful for a season two.
To really appreciate this show, viewers have to stick with it. It’s a slow burn at times when you may want it to move faster, but it comes together in the end. The characters are compelling and the mystery is solid. There are the makings of a great series here, and it left this reviewer wanting to see more. The entire series is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s definitely worth the watch.