If you don’t have 52 minutes to spare, you can have the essential experience of an entire Perry Mason episode by watching just the opening sequence. It begins with a long shot of a sturdily geometric courtroom, the camera peering in from the upper right and taking a Gods-eye view from above the jury box. The room is deserted except for Perry (Raymond Burr), who sits in his usual seat left of center, reading notes from a legal pad, while a large Palladian window on the opposite wall looks out on the City of Los Angeles.
Tense, dissonant music plays (clearly, this world is a troubled place!) as the camera cranes in to a medium close-up of Perry, still reading intently, then switches to Fred Steiner’s familiar, rhythmic theme (“Park Avenue Beat”) as Perry looks up, thinking deeply. Then he cracks a slight, almost private, smile, as the theme continues and the camera cranes back out—we know he’s found the key to solving the case, and is contemplating how delicious it will be to crush Hamilton Burger (William Talman), once again. The title (usually alliterative) and chief credits appear on screen, and the impression of a disordered world set to rights is confirmed by the theme music, which comes to a triumphant conclusion followed by a blackout and the beginning of the episode whose course has just been prefigured in miniature.
Perry Mason episodes were generally more clever than suspenseful, following a predictable formula that fit snugly into the broadcast blocks between commercial breaks. That’s not a criticism, but a statement of admiration, as the show’s writers were able to keep the formula fresh by varying the settings in which it was applied, and coming up with new ways to deliver the twist that was a necessary feature of each episode. Each show begins by dropping viewers into a world beyond their own experience—perhaps the apartment of a slightly shabby, slightly menacing fortune teller, a decadent party in an imposing mansion, or a woman’s prison. Something extreme and dramatic happens just before the first commercial break—because if the first job of a television program in those days was to attract viewers, the second was to keep them from tuning away when the commercials came on.
The next segment takes you back to the normal world, as Perry and his team, including his stalwart secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and favorite private detective Paul Drake (William Hopper) investigate whatever event (generally a murder) forms the focal point of the episode. In the second half, action shifts to the courtroom, where Perry and District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman) go at it hammer and tongs. Of course, Perry wins every time (well, 98.9 percent of the time, according to some calculations), but his clients are always innocent, so justice always prevails. And how does Perry manage this brilliant record? Not by creating doubts in the mind of the judge (the show specialized in preliminary hearings, not jury trials), but by finding the real criminal and tricking and/or badgering that person until he or she confesses.
That’s not how it works in the real world, folks, but it’s a sturdy framework that held up for 271 episodes, running on CBS television in the US from 1957 through 1966, and reaching as high as #5 in the Nielsen ratings. In fact, it’s the very familiarity of each episode’s progression, as well as the consistent and complementary personalities of the principal characters (forming a sort of work-centered family, as Dave Hickey points out in “The Little Church of Perry Mason”), that makes the show so appealing.
If no episode of Perry Mason is truly great, neither is any particularly bad, and as a group they offer a priceless view into the interests of Middle America. In the first half of season nine, broadcast in 1965 and 1966, those interests included computer dating (“The Case of the Hasty Honeymooner”) the Kitty Genovese case (“The Case of the Silent Six,”), Playboy Clubs (“The Case of the Golden Girls”), the Cold War (“The Case of the Fugitive Fraulein”), professional football (“The Case of the 12th Wildcat”), automobile racing (“The Case of the Runaway Racer”), astrology (“The Case of the Fatal Fortune”), industrial espionage (“The Case of the Baffling Bug”), mystery novelists (“The Case of the Impetuous Imp),” fortune tellers (“The Case of the Wrathful Wraith”), dieting (“The Case of the Candy Queen”), academic ambition (“The Case of the Cheating Chancellor”), cheesy television promotions (“The Case of the Bogus Buccaneers”), insurance fraud (“The Case of the Carefree Coronary”), and the lifestyles of the rich and famous (“The Case of the Laughing Lady”).
Perry Mason has enjoyed a lengthy run in syndication, although not only did some of the episodes never make it on to TV, but those that did air had about ten minutes missing, in order to make room for more commercials. So if you really want to see Perry Mason, you need to go to the DVDs. Paramount has been releasing DVD packages steadily, half a season at a time, and are now up to the first half of the 9th season (15 episodes). The visual (in gorgeous black and white, of course) and sound transfer are both excellent, so the only complaint I have is that there are absolutely no extras on these DVDs.