Perry Mason is a fictional hard-boiled detective and criminal lawyer. The books by Erle Stanley Gardner are the third-highest selling English book series of all time. The stories are incredibly satisfying in the way that mysteries often are – Mason has a client with a hopeless case, there is some courtroom drama, and just when you think things are going to go horribly wrong, Mason saves the day with a dramatic reveal. This, my friends, is Great TV Material.
But that isn’t what Perry Mason, the new HBO miniseries is about – it’s about the journey to become the Perry Mason we know and love. The series is set in Prohibition-era Los Angeles, before Mason became a hotshot criminal lawyer. Here, Mason (Matthew Rhys) is a private detective in the offices of E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), a struggling criminal lawyer. Mason has a blue-ticket discharge from the army, his marriage has fallen apart and he is a neglectful father to his young son. His finances are so bad, he needs to borrow ties from corpses in the morgue. The only people who still have a little faith in him are Pete Strickland, another detective, and Della Street (Juliet Rylance), Jonathan’s secretary of many years. The series begins when Mason is asked to investigate the murder of young Charlie Dodson, a one-year-old boy who was kidnapped for ransom.
Things get curiouser and curiouser as the series goes on. Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), another investigator for E.B. Jonathan, finds that the kidnapping is not as straightforward as it should be. Emily Dodson, Charlie’s mother, is arrested for his kidnapping. An evangelical preacher, Sister Alice, becomes Emily’s guardian and promises to resurrect the baby. A black cop (played by Chris Chalk) finally decides that he is fed up with being insulted by his superiors, and decides to be true to his conscience. The prosecution counsel and Los Angeles Police Department are corrupt and racist and sexist. And Mason eventually saves the day, like we knew he would.
If you think that can still make a good story, you’re right – Perry Mason has a lot going for it. The smallest roles – from Gayle Rankin as Emily Dodson, to John Lithgow as E.B. Jonathan, to Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice and to Chris Chalk as Officer Drake – carry a great deal of conviction. The visuals are stunning, with extraordinary attention to detail. The sets have a certain washed-out, Depression-era gloom to match the plot. Rhys is eminently watchable as a struggling detective, just trying to do his best, much like his character on The Americans. The show portrays Drake, the African-American cop struggling to reconcile his conscience with his job, with real empathy. Sister Alice’s Church, the public healings and the radio evangelism are strikingly similar to the televangelists of today. There is even a lesbian relationship and not where you might think it would be.
But as a mystery series, it doesn’t quite work. For one, the case against Emily Dodson is unconvincing, even to those of us watching from home. District Attorney Barnes, predecessor to District Attorney Hamilton Burger of the books, thunders on about how she had sex with a man she was not married to, or how was on the phone with her lover when her baby was kidnapped – as if that were enough to prove she did it. We never find out what happened with Sister Alice’s Church, nor do we ever get a complete explanation for what really happened with Charlie Dodson.
And that’s the trouble here. Fictional detectives are so much fun to watch because they are so much smarter than we are. They know a little secret and let us in on it right at the end. Sure, they are less than perfect in other respects – think Sherlock Holmes’ abrasiveness, or Hercule Poirot’s eccentricity. If I wanted the real picture of how investigations happen, I’d watch a police procedural like Line of Duty. When I watch a character as well loved as Perry Mason, I expect to be surprised, to be dazzled by the cleverness of it all. Finding out how awful Perry Mason would be at his job if it weren’t for everyone around him is a bit like watching sausages get made. I don’t want to know how little the detective really knows about the mystery, for crying out loud – I mean, yes, as a criminal defence attorney, his only job is to show that his client is innocent, but that isn’t what we’re here for now, is it?
Perry Mason is still very bingeable television – it’s beautifully made, and it’s exciting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. Watch for an imperfect, gritty story with some great performances.