Well, guess what: Perry Mason is back. Kind of. Perry Mason is kind of back. HBO is rolling out a gritty reimagining of the old Raymond Burr lawyer show from the 1950s this Sunday night, June 21. It’s got a loaded cast and a lot going on and, as we’ll get to shortly, bears little resemblance to any version of Perry Mason you might be familiar with. The show was developed and produced by Robert Downey’s production company (Downey himself was originally attached to star), and there are pieces in there that are very good and bordering on great. Unfortunately, there are also some parts of it that are… less great.
What I’m saying here is that if you, like me, were very excited about the idea of this show from the blurbs and teasers and general concept, I have some good news and bad news for you.
The cast of Perry Mason is incredible, top to bottom. Matthew Rhys plays the title character in his pre-lawyer private investigator days, all hard-scrabble and hard-boiled and unshaven and usually drunk or hungover or both. If you, like me, have been missing images of Matthew Rhys looking incredibly sad and beaten down by the world since The Americans ended its run, fear not, because there are so many shots of Matthew Rhys looking incredibly sad and beaten down by the world in Perry Mason. For such a giggly and fun man (please do watch him as himself in The Wine Show for reference), he plays downtrodden like he was born into it. His Mason is tough and troubled and burdened by a failing family farm and PTSD from World War I, and that’s before he even takes on the tough and troubling case that winds its way through the season. Matthew Rhys is good.
Also good: Tatiana Maslany as a thundering megachurch preacher whose family finds itself wrapped up in the case, too. Tatiana Maslany is the best. I’m not entirely sure she’s properly cast here, just because some of her top-end thundering doesn’t quiiiiite land, but who cares? She is such a dynamic performer, such a presence on screen, that most of the concerns fall away at some point. She does this thing where she looks at people and you can see the gears grinding away behind her eyes, revealing her true and sometimes devious intentions. She should be in more things, if not everything.
The rest of the cast is a sometimes literal murderer’s row, too. Stephen Root plays a duplicitous district attorney, John Lithgow plays the defense attorney who hires Perry to investigate, Shea Wigham plays Perry’s cohort. Put those three guys in anything and it’s going to be at least a B/B+. Chris Chalk turns in a really good performance as the one good cop dealing with the racism and corruption of 1930s Los Angeles. The real surprise here is Gayle Rankin (She-Wolf from GLOW) as a grieving mother. She’s in there with some big personalities and she holds her own in every scene. None of it really works without her pulling that off.
This is a bleak affair. It’s all very dark and brooding, which is sensible enough for a 1930s noir, but it never really clicked for me. Some things seem to be done for shock value alone. The first 10 minutes feature a dead infant, full-frontal male nudity, and a sex scene involving food and the slathering of food that will definitely burn itself into your brain for a while. Possibly forever.
The plot slogs in places, too. Without giving too much away, it goes something like this: there’s a baby that is kidnapped and killed, there are hidden identities and corruption up through the justice system, the Tatiana Maslany mega-church gets roped in, and only Perry Mason can untangle things. It’s fine. It’s really fine. The biggest problem is that, with everyone involved (in addition to the cast, the show is helmed by Boardwalk Empire veteran Tim Van Patten, himself no stranger to violent period pieces about corruption), it feels like it should be better. I kept wanting it to be. It’s still a pretty good watch, but there’s something left on the table there.
This brings us to the larger question in all of this: why? Why are we rebooting Perry Mason, a show about a television lawyer from the 1950s, and making him a gritty private eye? I know having a familiar name can hook in a few extra viewers but a) the people who might be interested because of the old series will barely recognize the action here, and b) most of the viewers they’re shooting for are too young to be moved by the Perry Mason of it all. I wonder if this would have been better served by stripping away the IP and just making a gritty noir — everything else exactly the same — about a guy named, like, Rex Manhattan or Mick Rockledge. Those names are freebies for anyone else working on a noir project. My gift to you.
Really just a tremendous collection of mustaches in this sucker. Look.
That’s John Lithgow’s character up there sporting a bushy gray caterpillar on his upper lip. Solid, for sure, but not the best one on the show. Give me a pencil-thin old-timely mustache. Come on. Hit me.
There we go. God bless Stephen Root. The man has never been bad in anything. Newsradio, Barry, Justified, an all-around treasure. And here he is with a tiny little mustache that screams “I’m a corrupt public official who is up to no good.” It’s beautiful. Almost perfect. And still only the second-best mustache on the show. Allow me to present Shea Wigham in what I promise is a very real promotional picture that was released by HBO.
Just magnificent. If this show could have been 80 percent as successful at what it set out to do as Shea Wigham’s mustache is at what it’s doing, we could have just canceled the Emmys and dropped all the trophies off in HBO’s parking lot via dump truck. Perhaps you consider this hyperbole, or at the very least a silly and useless aside for a serious television review. I would disagree. And I stand by my statement.
With increasingly limited options on the television and movie front due to various pandemic-related issues, I was really hoping Perry Mason could be the show that galvanizes everyone through the summer. One we could all watch and enjoy and dive too deeply into. This may have been unfair on my part. I might have been putting too much pressure on a show that wasn’t meant as a big broad smash. Again, the show is fine, good in some parts, loaded with great performances and mustaches, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
If it does catch on, though, and it starts a trend of bringing back old detective shows from decades ago, and all that ends up getting me a fun Columbo reboot starring, say, Jake Johnson or Natasha Lyonne… well, then all will be forgiven.