Perry Mason (2020)

I never knew Perry Mason, have never knowingly watched an episode of the classic series. For me, Raymond Burr was A Man Called Ironside, and I’m still unclear as to whether he was in the wheelchair for real or whether it was part of his performance. Raymond Burr was an interesting character himself, according to the Wiki, telling all kinds of fantastic lies about his life. Anyway, Raymond Burr played the character of Perry Mason from 1957 to 1966, so when he first appeared as Mason he was around 40 years old. Raymond Burr was born in 1917.

The Perry Mason played by Matthew Rhys in the recent HBO production of Perry Mason is much older. Rhys himself is 45, meaning that (if he’s playing his age) his version of the character was born in 1887, and was already 30 when he fought in the trenches of the Great War between 1917 and 1918. So by the time Rhys’ Perry Mason reaches 1957, in show time, he’ll be 70 years old, if he lives that long.

Which he might not do, because he drinks too much, and like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, he keeps getting beaten up.

This show got mixed reviews. Clearly some critics didn’t get far beyond the first episode, but there being nothing else on worth watching, I did. And I think that overall it was very good, with Rhys excellent as the character, and the show itself clearly relishing the luxury of the time it takes to get Perry Mason into a suit in a courtroom, in front of a judge and defending a client.

If you pause to think about it, it is fascinating that something as good as this can drop, be generally ignored, and be almost forgotten in the space of a year. Television standards have been raised so high that people barely notice such aspects of Platinum Age TV as hair, makeup, costume, period detail. If you’re old enough to remember the Ironside era, and bad TV movies set in courtrooms, you’ll recall the astonishingly bad hair, cardboard sets, and countless other details that they didn’t have the time or the budget to care about. Only in a feature film would you get convincing period detail and high quality hair and make-up. And this, now, this Perry Mason, is on TV, with actors who look convincingly like the dowdy, down-at-heel characters they are, like people who have just lived through the Wall Street crash and the hard early years of The Great Depression.

Rhys plays Mason as a cheap detective, a hard drinking hard boiled hard luck sleuth who works for an idealistic but out of his depth lawyer (John Lithgow, excellent) and gets called in on the case of a kidnapped baby who was returned (in the first episode) dead, with its eyes sewn open to trick the ransom payers, the parents, who end up being accused of the crime.

Support is provided by a radiant Juliet Rylance as Della Street (a well-known character from the original books/series) who plays the woman who keeps Lithgow afloat and works with Perry Mason with no romantic involvement at all. Then there’s Chris Chalk as a beat cop who’s a better cop than the lead detectives, and Tatiana Maslany as the religious leader whose church takes an interest in the case. The final central character is Shea Whigham as a fellow investigator who has such a 1930s face that you can’t believe he didn’t arrive in a time machine.

Unlike the 1950s show, which followed a case-of-the-week format, Perry Mason 2020 style spreads the one case over eight full-length episodes, which allows for the plot and character development we’ve grown so accustomed to in the Platinum Age that we barely even notice it.

Rhys’ Mason is nuanced, messy, morally compromised, but follows Chandler’s precept of a man who walks the mean streets although he himself is not mean. He ends up in court by unconventional means, giving you a real sense of peril when he stands up to make his first speech in court.

I really enjoyed this. Fingers crossed for a second season.

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