Monday, March 13, 2023
Pushing the Old Guys Aside: HBO's Perry Mason Season 1
Here’s a funny thing: when I pulled it up on HBO Max late last week, my time stamp was halfway through episode three. I asked my wife if she’d be up for watching. She was and, without going back to re-watch the opening two installments, we forged ahead.
The cheeky summation I’ve heard about this show is that it is not your grandfather’s Perry Mason. That’s certainly true, both in the language and the personal relationships. The moment where Della Street, assistant to E.B. Jonathan (Jonathan Lithgow), the nearly-too-old-for-this lawyer defending Emily Dodson, climbs into bed with her girlfriend, my wife asked about it. Cue said cheeky comment.
I enjoy the old TV show quite a bit, but I’m nowhere near an expert. It’s just good comfort television. As for the books, I’ve only read the first one. What’s fascinating about the first book and the 2020 series is how much alike they are. If the only Perry Mason you know is Raymond Burr, well, he’s not like Matthew Rhys but Burr is also not exactly like the character we first see in 1933. Rhys and 1933 Mason are scrappers, not afraid to poke a hornet’s nest and see what happens. It’s rather remarkable how well that type of character fit both in the Depression as well as ninety years later.
This being an origin story, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how far down Mason was when this series began. Employed by E.B., Mason drinks way too much, is estranged from his wife and son, and constantly is threatened to have his family’s house taken away from him.
But the core quality of Perry Mason is his drive for justice. He can’t let things go when he knows there is something just under the surface. To quote Mason’s own self description when asked what he does, “He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!””
Rhys fights, both with his fists as well as his brain. The problem is that he often goes a few steps too far and says things to people like Della or his investigator, Pete Strickland, who are trying to help. I appreciated seeing Rhys try and smooth over Mason’s rough edges by the end of the season and never quite finishing the job.
It’s also fascinating to see how they inject 21st Century themes into a show set in the Depression. It’s obvious that same sex relationships and racial prejudices existed in the 1930s (and the 1950s era of the TV show) but it’s good to see it out in the open. Paul Drake, Mason’s main investigator by the end of the 2020 series, is now portrayed by Chris Chalk, an African-American. That itself brings up a lot of possibilities of narratives and themes. But I liked that Drake, a beat cop when we first meet him, has an inner integrity that is stronger that any position or job. Ditto for Della. The old TV show always showed her as all but an equal partner, but she always remained a secretary. The 2020 Della is an assistant, but she’s already enrolled in school and plans on becoming a lawyer. “A woman lawyer,” Mason says at the end. “A lawyer,” Della replied. “No modifier.”
Author Erle Stanley Gardner’s books are famous for their intricate nature. This 2020 season lives up to that bar. I did not see the ending coming and I really liked how the trial was resolved.
Oh, a quick shout out: Stephen Root, known for his comedy chops, plays the smarmy, publicity-hungry DA is all of his greasy glory. It made me want to see how many other non-comedy roles the actor has done. Loved him as I did Lithgow.
I suppose, with any origin story, you have to have older characters in places of authority that the younger characters seek to overcome. It’s pretty much the same in Season 1. So, in a very literal sense, the young Perry Mason beat a couple of old guys. You know, so it really isn’t your grandfather’s Perry Mason.