HBO’s Perry Mason: Series Premiere Review
*This Review Contains Full Spoilers*
Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s, Perry Mason has been a staple to detective stories and has remained an iconic name through many different mediums. From the countless novels that took readers through Mason’s career as a defense attorney trying to prove his clients’ innocence to live-action depictions from Raymond Burr and Monte Markham that brought the character to life, Mason has had a long run. He’s often portrayed in a more wholesome light and as an honest and upstanding character whose background and previous family life aren’t that well known. However, HBO is looking for viewers to forget what they know about Perry Mason with their new limited series that’s take a darker look at the character and 1930s Los Angeles.
Taking place in a 1931 and in a Los Angeles prospering during the Great Depression due to an oil boom, a changing film industry, and a massive evangelical Christian revival, the series follows Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) – a detective haunted by the gruesome things he’s seen and trying to make ends meet. While attempting to blackmail film executives by following one of their top comedians alongside his partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), Mason is tapped by his former mentor E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) in order to help solve the case of the brutal kidnapping of a one year old boy. As more players in the police become involved and the corruption taking place within L.A. is becoming clearer, Mason must piece together clues to figure out what’s really going on before he faces major consequences that threaten himself, his client, and the entire city.
It’s immediately refreshing seeing 1930s Los Angeles like this as it’s a much more adult and darker look than what were usually used to. With HBO behind the series, pretty much nothing is off the table for the dark places this series heads into in just its first episode. Everything that happens with Charlie Dodson, the one year old who is kidnapped, is legitimately horrifying and pulls no punches in showing the gut-wrenching things that Perry discovers. There’s a scene in a morgue that literally sends chills down you spine because of how graphically real it is and it’ll haunt viewers as much as it haunts Mason. Even down to the corrupt minds of 1930s Hollywood and the grim places that Mason goes to just to make a survivable wage really puts the glitz and the glam away and trades it in for a dark and gritty realism that sucks you into the atmosphere of the series.
Whether it’s the clothes and caps that everyone is wearing, the silky smooth score that likely plays when anyone is reading a great detective novel, or the dark cinematography, watching Perry Mason really feels like you’ve been sucked into a 1930’s detective story. However, there’s some more modern elements to it that take the typical Perry Mason story into a new era. Like I said before, with HBO, nothing is off the table and things like nudity, profanity, blood, and other elements that wouldn’t be a part of the original Perry Mason stories are in full form here. Even just seeing how the corrupt film executives and crooked cops treated Mason is very different look at the time and gives the material some relevant updates that make it a pretty engaging watch.
Our titular protagonist is also given some updates with the series delving into his past family life a bit and offering a more broken depiction of the iconic character that Rhys absolutely shines as. Rhys perfectly brings out the sort of soul-crushed personality of Mason that’s haunted by poor past decisions that has left him estranged from his former family and forced into immoral lines of work. He’s a drunken mess at times, hard-nosed with his own sense of righteousness, and is constantly hurt by the fears of him losing his home. However, this Mason isn’t a total downer and Rhys adds a lot of charm that viewers will love. From him buying a new tie from the morgue to seeing him on trial and delivering some colorful commentary, Rhys makes Mason the sort of “off the beaten path” hero that’s hard not to root for.
As for the other characters, the premiere does a solid job introducing some of the characters, but did struggle to empathize some the relationships and story beats. Aside from Rhys as Mason, the second most impressionable performance we get, even though its not much, is Whigham as Strickland since his stark contrast personality really makes him stand out. There’s also a performance from Veronica Falcon as Lupe, a lover of sorts for Mason, who offers some strong guidance for Mason and all of the confidence he lacks in the moment. Other characters, however, just don’t make the same kind of strong impression and while there’s still plenty of time for this to happen it’s a little weird that staple characters like Della Street (Juliet Rylance) are barely given a chance to get their name across.
The story also leaves things a little too unclear at the moment. Obviously based on the fact of how things end in this episode with Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) killing the kidnappers at the end of the episode, there’s more to the story than what we, and Mason, know. However, sometimes things jump around a bit or the technical aspects, like the score, get in the way and it’s easy to miss details or the importance of things. I literally had to replay the end moment of Mason looking over clues like six times just to hear what he was saying and part of me still has no idea what he’s really talking about. The premiere definitely doesn’t want to give too much, but it’s still a little too wrapped up in its mystery in a way that could make it hard to hook people.
HBO’s Perry Mason gives the iconic character a darker and more mature look that’s elevated by a great performance from Rhys and a trip back to a much grittier and unethical 1930’s Los Angeles. Although its kind of hard to figure out where things are exactly going at the moment, there’s certainly enough style, charm, and allure that make this detective series worth watching – especially for fans of Mason that want to see a different side to the character.