Pop Culturing: 'Perry Mason,' with Matthew Rhys, Gets a Big Budget Reboot

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday June 20, 2020

Matthew Rhys in a scene from "Perry Mason."
Matthew Rhys in a scene from "Perry Mason."  (Source:Merrick Morton/HBO)

HBO's new miniseries "Perry Mason" might be the best-looking TV show of the year — and that's saying something considering the slew of visually striking series that have dropped in the first half of 2020, many of them period pieces. Netflix's "Hollywood," HBO's "The Plot Against America," and Showtime's "Penny Dreadful" all take place in the 30s and 40s and are brilliantly rendered by the production teams behind each of those series. But this new iteration of Erle Stanley Gardner's character Perry Mason, a criminal defense attorney played here by a solid Matthew Rhys, is particularly eye-popping.

That it's so lush is due to its massive $74 million budget. Created by Rolin Jones ("Weeds," "Boardwalk Empire") and Ron Fitzgerald ("Friday Night Lights, "Weeds"), the show mostly ditches the courtroom drama associated with Perry Mason, making the series a gruesome and sweaty L.A. noir. Imagine a classic noir like "Double Indemnity" but with a Hollywood blockbuster budget. And Rhys is fully aware of what kind of TV show he's in. Unfortunately, he's not given too much to do on the emoting spectrum and plays Mason as a super-hard-boiled P.I. that his version of the character is hard to connect to.


Tatiana Maslany in a scene from "Perry Mason." Photo credit: Merrick Morton/HBO

Despite its luxe style and keenness to pay ode to the genre, "Perry Mason" positions itself more like "True Detective," a signature HBO series full of lore and gritty violence. The faint of heart expecting a Raymond Burr-esque legal drama and not a gnarly detective story might be turned off. This particular story finds a Great Depression-era Mason working as an investigator for attorney E.B. Johnathan (John Lithgow). The case is particularly graphic and scandalous as it involves the disappearance of a baby, who turns out to be murdered under freaky circumstances.

Thankfully, the show is more than just a well-made caper; like the best noirs, "Perry Mason" offers a lot of subtext, focusing on trauma/PTSD (this Mason is a World War I vet and the show goes into detail by recreating flashback war scenes that recall last year's Oscar frontrunner "1917"), religion and L.A.'s problematic police force. "I wouldn't trust the Los Angeles Police Department to do the job that's needed," someone says — "Perry Mason" doesn't hold back when it comes to crooked cops, especially those within a city that has a long history of crooked officers.

The backdrop of the show also highlights rising Christian evangelicals at the time, with Tatiana Maslany playing Sister Alice, who leads a devout following along with her mother, played by Lily Collins. This storyline is oddly similar to one in "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels." In fact, "Perry Mason" tackles a lot of the same issues and offers a lot of the same subtext as that Showtime program albeit it nixes its supernatural elements.


Shea Whigham, left, and Matthew Rhys, right, in a scene from "Perry Mason." Photo credit: Merrick Morton/HBO

"Perry Mason" is ultimately a well-made prestigious anti-hero drama, with a lot of talent and care poured into it. It won't revolutionize TV in the way "True Detective" and other shows have but it will undoubtedly satisfy those willing to devote upwards of eight hours to a gruesome and pulpy tale.


Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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