Written by Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald
Directed by Tim Van Patten
It’s kind of perplexing knowing where to start with HBO’s Perry Mason, and make no mistake, this is very much HBO’s version of Perry Mason. One of television’s most famous lawyers, the series was one of those shows that not only made Raymond Burr one of television’s most famous faces, but it laid down something of a template for law shows that would go on to influence the works of Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf.
The Perry Mason of 2020 arrives after years of being stuck in the confines of development hell. Initially planned as a movie produced by Susan Downey and starring her husband, the planned remake made the move to television and to the confines of HBO where, at one point, True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto was going to write and produce before a third season of his own show prevented that. What we have now is a script from Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, whose previous work includes episodes of Friday Night Lights and Weed, as well as direction from frequent HBO director Tim Van Patten.
For anyone coming to Perry Mason with memories of Raymond Burr getting innocent parties off the hook for a crime they didn’t commit, managing to procure confessions from the witness box by the actual culprits either in the original black and white series from the 50s or the tv movies of the late 80s and early 90s (which were repeated constantly on the BBC for years after), then this iteration of the character might come as a big of a shock.
A stylish shock, but a shock, nevertheless.
The first thing to note about Perry Mason is that as is usual with so much HBO content, the series looks gorgeous, with truly cinematic production values that wouldn’t look out of place on the silver screen. This being HBO, however, means that it comes with so many HBO tropes; there is male and female nudity on display, sexual scenes and use of four letter words and just hearing myself write this makes it sound like I’m coming across as somewhat of a prude, but trust me I bring this up not because of prudishness but because it’s somewhat of a trope for a HBO series to throw adult content into some of their shows simply because they can, but they are a cable provider who deliver adult content and that’s always been the way they are, it’s just the reason I bring it up here is because this is Perry Mason we’re talking about.
It’s somewhat of a joke when we talk about Christopher Nolan-style reboots of things (like when Riverdale premiered and audiences were immediately confronted with murder and Archie Andrews having sex with his teacher), but there is something strange in watching something based on a character that previously starred the jovial Raymond Burr amongst Columbo and Quincy repeats on the BBC daytime schedule and has now been rebooted into a heavy drinking, divorced and blackmail-attempting style of film noir character.
The aesthetic of 30s noir is evoked beautifully, even down to the title card that comes complete with the copyright and year of production in Roman numerals in small print underneath it, but in taking the route of a prequel (Perry Mason Begins?) it feels as if the series has really wanted to be something else and opted to apply the name of an established character in order to get made because recognisable IPs are all the rage these days.
Now, this would be a problem, or very easily a misjudged one, except Perry Mason is rather enjoyable. It’s dark, yes, and it’s setting up a very complex plot involving a dead child in a kidnapping gone wrong and clearly some narrative about dirty cops and corruption in the LAPD, and while it seems strange to see a depiction of this particular character on screen like this, the truth is it makes for somewhat compulsive television.
There’s really nothing here you haven’t seen a million times before; a private investigator looked down by employed cops, with a drinking problem, but who is a million times better than everyone else involved in the case is a cliché we’ve seen so many times before that one loses count of how many times it’s been done (I just checked, it’s a lot), and of course the lead character is a male and we’ve seen that a million times before as well.
Honestly, every fibre of me was wanting to reject the series for utilising tropes and narrative devices that we’ve seen so many times before and just toss it away as cliched nonsense, except I was so taken along by it that I’m pretty sure I’ll be tuning in again next week and that’s always a good sign.
Other reviews have been somewhat mixed admittedly, and to take a property like this and make it HBO-style is very easily something that could make it an easy target for satire, but it does what it does well, in such a darkly entertaining manner that I’m eager to see where it goes and if it will actually stick the landing.
Perry Mason airs Sunday nights on HBO in the U.S and Monday nights on Sky Atlantic in the U.K.