At times season one of Perry Mason seemed so concerned with proving this isn’t your dad’s (or grandpa’s) Perry Mason that, even while I was mostly enjoying the show, I often had this nagging feeling that the powers that be behind the show were, well, trying too hard. Based on the beloved (but oh so square) legal procedural that ran on CBS from 1957-66, the first version of Perry Mason (with Raymond Burr in the lead) presented a superior, relatively unconflicted lawyer who never lost a case. The original series was basically a better version of Matlock.
Clearly wanting to make a hard left turn from its namesake, this rebooted version of the character has taken its cues from Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and classic ‘40s film noir. When we meet the new Perry (Matthew Rhys, who has grown into the role nicely), we discover that he lives on his family’s broken down dairy farm that is about to be foreclosed on. Set during the great depression, Perry makes his few bones as a low-rent private detective whose jobs mostly involve catching people in compromising positions and taking photos of them. You could argue that this Perry Mason is a lot closer to Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens from L.A. Confidential than Raymond Burr’s stalwart barrister—only Rhys is taller, unshaven, and wearing a dirty shirt.
While the new Mason origin story was smart to make the character flawed, it did so to the point of making him a major fuckup, which added a lot of weight to each episode as we see Mason attempt to find his bearings and a semblance of dignity, while discovering that he has an uncanny ability to understand the law. Some of that added weight was useful, but it did at times make season one a bit of a trudge to get through. Thankfully, while both the character and the show were finding their footing, compensations could be found in abundance.
Perry Mason is a first-rate production that looks great, sounds great (the score by Terence Blanchard is fabulous), and boasts a gifted cast of knowns and lesser knowns. Rhys does excellent work as a man who realizes he’s an underachiever, but needs a reason to care before he can become who he was born to be–a first rate lawyer who takes up the toughest causes and the hardest cases.
On the way, he slowly, almost accidentally begins to build a team around him. Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, a token Black police officer, is excellent as a man who knows justice isn’t always metered out by the boys in blue, and so he walks away from the LAPD to work as a PI for Mason, who can’t infiltrate communities of color the way Drake can. Don’t be surprised if the character of Paul Drake gives you some Easy Rawlins vibes. There’s more than a little bit of Denzel Washington’s character from Devil in a Blue Dress on display here in the person of Drake. He’s a man that if he were born at a different time, he would likely be a leader of significance in his community and perhaps even more broadly. But as a Black man in depression era California, he must operate in the shadows.
The incredibly ubiquitous Shea Whigham (seriously, what is he not in?), makes for a good frenemy/foil for Rhys’ Mason. These are two men who don’t particularly like each other, but both live on the margins, and there will be times when their lives will intersect and they will have a need for each other, even if that need can’t be coupled with trust.
Best of all is Juliet Rylance as the perfectly named Della Street who starts out as Mason’s immensely-overqualified secretary, but soon finds she’s pretty good at this legal eagle business herself, and quickly becomes Mason’s essential #2. Rylance, who was so terrific in Soderbergh’s The Knick, strikes me as an actor who should be much better known. Of all the characters in the cast, she feels the most at home in the period, while also being the most progressive character on the show. Della is beautiful, glamorous, and with perfect manners, who also just happens to be a lesbian in America in the 1920s, requiring her to balance the public nature of her work with Mason with a secret too unsafe to reveal.
In both seasons, the plots and cases are labyrinthine, and my best advice while you’re watching is simply to exercise patience. In season one, the case Mason attaches himself to is a rather grim one, involving the murder of an infant, the impending madness of his defendant (the mother of the deceased child), while also working in a related subplot about a religious cult led by a dynamic Tatiana Maslany. To say that there are many twists and turns in season one is to suggest that corkscrew pasta has winding attributes. And to be honest, however well-staged and shot season one is, it was at times all a little bit much. Even me, a full-on sucker for film noir, found myself on occasion talking to the TV, asking, “Really?”
Still, when Rhys (who uses a very subtle stutter to convey Mason’s lack of certainty in his own abilities), finally takes to the courtroom and becomes Attorney Perry Mason, he is absolutely electric. You can see and feel his character gain confidence, even when his haunted countenance and that nagging stammer seem to argue otherwise. It’s a great dancing on a courtroom needle moment for Rhys, and he nails it beautifully.
Season two improves upon season one in multiple ways. For one, Rhys seems to wear the hat more comfortably, both Rylance and Chalk are given a lot to do–and boy are they both wonderful at doing it–but perhaps most importantly, while the case in the show’s sophomore season is certainly complicated (involving the murder of Brooks McCutcheon, a rich man’s ne-er do well son), it’s also more down to earth. Focusing on the fates of brothers Rafael and Mateo, two young Mexican American men (compassionately played by Fabrizio Guido and Peter Mendoza) accused of murdering McCutcheon, season two is less about “whodunnit,” and more about why it was done. It’s also a season that makes it clear that you can win and lose at the same time. A concept Burr’s show would have never touched.
In excising the florid nature of year one’s case, this season of Perry Mason allowed us to sink in with the characters and their many plights. Mason starts to grow into the job. Paul begins to wonder if he can do more for his community than pry information from them for Mason. And, as mentioned before, Della comes forward so strongly that she practically becomes a co-lead. Beyond that, by turning the show’s attention to Rafael and Mateo, season two also sheds light on the extraordinary challenges that immigrants to this country are often faced with. The racism, the poverty, the presumed mistrust, it’s all there. Despite the show’s great and very successful efforts to convey a time in our country from nearly a century ago, it all feels so very relevant.
And that’s how a show goes from good to great, from watchable to truly involving–by mattering. Season two of Perry Mason made that leap. It matters now.