Written by Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Original Air Date: 28th June 2020
It stands to reason that Perry Mason would take the approach that it does in 2020, especially when it’s on HBO. The cable provider that has over the years produced The Sopranos, Oz and True Detective has always been something of a home for shows with morally compromised male leads, with The Sopranos itself a launching pad for a plethora of male anti-heroes on the small screen.
Perry Mason himself isn’t so much an anti-hero; if he were then the show would have no right to be called Perry Mason, or at the very least anger the purists more. What it is, and it’s even clearer in ‘Chapter Two’, is that this is a series revelling in the stylistic tropes and clichés of Prestige TV.
That’s not a criticism. Far from it, after all, they don’t call it the Golden Era of Television for nothing. This is still an impressive episode of television by any yardstick and it commits fully to not only its darker approach to Erle Stanley Gardner’s character and the noir flavour established in ‘Chapter One’, but in also staking out an attitude that makes this remake of a 1950s CBS legal drama one that could only have come from the stable of True Detective or the recent version of Watchmen.
Although not as brilliantly incendiary as Damon Lindelof’s approach to Alan Moore’ famous comic book, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald have big targets in mind here. In presenting a Los Angeles that is flourishing thanks to movies, oil and evangelical religion, all the while the rest of the country struggles, it digs deep into the façade that the city was offering and rips into the hypocrisy that it was offering.
Last week Perry was asked about why would he want to destroy a movie star when all he would be doing was destroying the escapism that such work offers to the people. ‘Chapter Two’ puts its focus on religion, and given that its represented by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and whose family are connected to the death of Charlie, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing more of her church, the Radiant Assembly of God.
It isn’t just a mere church service that Alice and her family are offering; it’s a glossy, well put together performance that is almost feature film-like in its grandiose flavour. The depression might be in full force, but there are those who still have money and privilege, and while they might be purporting to be offering those lesser than them the means to live and escape and hope, there is truly little of the latter to give, and even there is any, what hope there is ultimately hollow.
Of course, all that privilege is doled out from white people to other white people. The episode introduces us to Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a key character from the original texts and television series, who is here re-imagined as an African-American police officer who walks the beat, but who has a mind sharper than the other detectives around him and yet whose job it is to patrol African-American communities in the city who are less financially secure than any of the white characters we see and whose keen detective mind is belittled by his racist colleagues.
In a period when the behaviour and actions of law enforcement are rightly being critiqued and protested, it’s an interesting story the series offers up, but one it handles well and intelligently, not to mention pointedly.
For all the big questions on offer here, the one thing Perry Mason hasn’t forgotten about is to offer up an engaging mystery. Centred around Matthew Rhys’ wonderfully brooding performance, it’s a relief that the series isn’t trying to refashion him as some sort of anti-hero in a medium that is filled with too many of them, or at least of the male variety.
What we have here is a wonderful three-dimensional character, in a series filled with them as well, but one who isn’t afraid above stealing evidence from an obviously staged crime scene. The latter moment offers up a scene of grisly post-murder violence that reminds you that is a million miles away from a MeTV or daytime BBC 1 repeat, and once again for anyone familiar with the original show, it may not convince you to stick around.
For those that do, the episode retains the stylish power of the first. As Rhys’ Perry walks those stylish Los Angeles streets of the period, it’s clear that the series is offering up a darker slice of the American dream from a city that was offering its own version of that dream when the economy was plunging the rest of the world into a nightmare of sorts.
All three of the famous trio that would make up the Perry Mason series find themselves surrounded by anguish; Perry finds himself wondering past an unemployment line, Drake finds himself surrounded by the poverty enveloping African-American communities of the city, and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) comforts a mother being pinned for the murder of her child by a corrupt LA police force.
Once again, we’re a million miles away from Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, and yet this iteration of Perry Mason is proving hard to turn away from.
Perry Mason airs Sunday nights on HBO in the U.S, and Monday nights on Sky Atlantic in the U.K.