Perry Mason (HBO) – Season 1

The following commentary is based on episodes one and two of the inaugural season.  While my wife and I have watched episode, and if we watch episode four, I’ll post additional commentary.  As they say, the jury is out on whether that will happen.

Prior to Netflix taking over the act of watching movies and television series, HBO dominated in the area of adult content for mature adults.  Series like The Sopranos, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones and so on were shows adults looked forward to watching on Sunday evenings and discussing with other people over the course of the week.  To varying degrees, these shows had a particular HBO-ness to them.  Put another way, they had elements that typically were not included by shows put forth by the broadcast networks.  In particular, they had:

  • Lavish sets and costume design
  • Ample swearing
  • Graphic violence
  • Gratuitous full-frontal nudity

HBO’s updated take has all of those elements, but it is an odd mixture of what you could call traditional entertainment and the elements listed above that are HBO’s signature.

I have never watched the original Perry Mason series that aired from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties.  All I knew about that show was that it starred Ramond Burr as a lawyer.  HBO’s take on the character introduces him as a gumshoe detective and not a lawyer.  Perhaps this series as a prequel for the character, and we’ll get him in a courtroom setting next time around.

Set in the years between WW1 and WW2, Perry Mason is played as a down-on-his-luck dairy farmer who sells his spare time to Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan, played with panache by Jonathan Lithgow.  You’re probably thinking at this moment, “this Perry Mason is not only not a lawyer, but is a dairy farmer?”  Exactly.

Perry Mason owns a dairy farm where the couple of remaining malnourished cows could possibly make up one healthy cow.  Perry states at one point that the farm has been visited by five presidents.  Based on the state of the farm as depicted in this series, I’m guessing that run will likely end with the next one.

For some reason, Mason refuses to sell his farm to Lupe Gibbs, the owner of a nearby airstip.  Naturally, Mason and Lupe are in some form of relationship.  The show emphasizes the power dynamic of the couple early on when Lupe basically shags Mason off the bed and onto the floor.  I’m confident that the show will explain why Mason refuses to sell the farm (ouch), but I may or may not get to that point.

The plot involves many elements, the central one being the death of a baby kidnapped for ransom.  In a particularly gruesome touch, when the baby is recovered by his parents, its eyes are sewn open.  I figure this happened post-mortem, but with this show, that is probably not a safe assumption.

As you can tell, the series is very grimdark.  As I watched it, the show seemed like it wanted to be Perry Mason as an equivalent to Batman, sans cape and cowl.  As played by Matthew Rhys, Mason is essentially a blank everyman.  His main character traits are:  angry drunk and shutterbug.  I’ve heard that Rhys was exceptional on The Americans, but I’ve never seen that show, so I can’t tell if this is typically Rhys work, or an exception.

In one scene, Mason is in EB’s office with the rest of the crew.  Shea Whigham is there as Pete Strickland, and I kept thinking, why isn’t he playing Mason?  Lithgow brings some class to the proceedings, and Juliet Rylance brings a simmering intensity to Della Street, the receptionist.  In that office scene, I kept thinking, Mason is the least interesting character present.  All of the actors are compensating for his inscrutable blandness.  The show mentions several times that Mason was sent home from the war for character unbecoming.  He shot his fellow soldiers out of mercy.  (They were physically incapacitated and soon to die of mustard gas.) Evidentially, this act of mercy did not matter to the military tribunal, who sent him home with a blue card.  This aspect of  WW1 was something I hadn’t seen before, but it doesn’t amount to anything in the larger scheme of things.

The parents of the dead child were both involved with the Radiant Assembly of God, which has Siser Alice as its preacher.  As played by Tatiana Maslany, I did not believe for one second that she could lead a congregation of the size shown.  I was also dubious that a Christian-based church would even have a woman as preacher in the period of the show, but I need to research that some more before I say this is definitively a historical anomaly.

The way the show presents the Sister Alice character also is problematic. When she initially appears, she’s dressed in a white silk robe and has bleach-blond hair.  Is the show trying to relate the worship with religious leaders to that of Hollywood actors?  Maybe, but I don’t think the show’s creators took that comparison any further than surface level.

As I’ve mentioned, the cast of Perry Mason is impressive.  In addition to Shea Whigham and Jonathan Lithgow, Stephen Root is on hand as the LA district attorney.  Robert Patrick plays a wealthy benefactor to the church, and I kept thinking: gosh, has that much time passed since Terminator 2?  He looked so old.  Chris Chalk has some nice moments as an African-American cop trying to navigate a corrupt police force.

The problem I have with a series like this is that it will never match up to the great movies it holds up as inspiration.  While watching Perry Mason, I kept thinking to myself, LA Confidential was a great movie.  I should watch that again.  Or Chinatown.  Perry Mason wants to be in the same conversation as those movies, presenting a sunny-yet-grimey LA, with a morally conflicted detective at its center, diving into the morass of a corrupt town to solve a shocking murder.  Perry Mason is no LA Confidential, or Chinatown, for that matter.  It’s not even True Detective (season one).  It may be a spare-no-expense enterprise, but it is mediocre at best.

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