Gone are the days of wide-eyed optimism in television, when idealistic characters featuring a precise moral compass proved that the system could be a benevolent protector of the weak, at least when nudged heroically. Even longer gone are the days of the original Perry Mason, a legendary criminal defense lawyer character created by Erle Stanley Gardner in his series of detective stories, which mesmerized the American public from the early 1930s all the way to the ’90s. Gardner, a successful attorney, envisioned Mason as a Good Samaritan defender who stood for what was right, often taking on impossible cases for meager fees out of curiosity or a sense of righteousness. What he deliberately did not envision him as is an alcoholic, a traumatized war veteran, a divorcee, a borderline absentee father, and a profoundly cynical outcast from a society drowning in a cesspool of its atrocities.
This is, however, exactly the Perry Mason we get in 2022, in an excellent second season of a hit HBO reboot of the television series starring Raymond Burr (1957-1966). Murders, mysteries, disgruntled folks, and corruption all run rampant over the course of eight superbly slick episodes starring a spectacular Matthew Rhys as Mason, Juliet Rylance as Della Street, and Chris Chalk as Paul Drake. While building on character complexity and social critique of the first season, Season 2 also finds its foothold as an aptly set-up procedural with plenty of twists up its sleeve.
Three years after we’ve first met this version of Mason, a shoestring sleuth navigating the nefarious streets of the Great Depression era Los Angeles, he’s become an attorney, having passed the bar after one night of cramming. Nonetheless, after securing a hung jury for his first big trial, the murder of the infant child of Emily Dodson, he swore off criminal law. Early on, we learn that the weight of the Season 1 case was too much for Mason to bear; the ghosts of the horrendous crime linger in his mind and are referenced throughout the second installment.
After switching to civil law and selling his family ranch, Mason is trying to get a fresh start. Running a modest office with the help of his right hand, Della Street, with ex-police-turned-PI Paul Drake in tow for footwork, he manages to put food on the table, but only just. Hefty fees are hard to come by in that field. His biggest client, Sunny Gryce (a delightfully repulsive Sean Astin), is a belligerent grocery chain store owner hounding down anyone in sight to keep his business ahead of the competition. The man is so bent on annihilating potential rivals that he essentially demands in court that a worker lose his life savings over a minor transgression.
There’s no joy in representing such people, knowing the ordinary fella next door will get hurt because of their callous ambition. As colleagues try to console a despondent Mason with the “it’s just business” spiel, he quips: “What will be left of that poor bastard? Who’s to blame for what happens after?” It’s a sound question that will get raised many times over.
The team’s personal circumstances are also arguably no better than their work lives. Mason’s short fuse and problematic temper essentially prevent him from being a role model to his son and a viable love interest for his son’s teacher, Ms. Ginny Aimes (an underutilized Katherine Waterson). His fundamental repulsion toward endless corruption and power play in Los Angeles blocks him from enjoying his work. Della Street, on the other hand, is struggling to keep her sexuality and love life private, often being reminded that she’s putting her career on the line because she’s a lesbian. Paul Drake, too, is in the direst of straits, having to move his family to his brother-in-law’s house after losing his job. There’s nary a satisfied soul on this show, but their continuous tribulations make for quality – not to mention relatable and realistic – drama.
Then there is the sordid public life of the notorious City of Angels. In the first scenes, we get to know one Brooks McCutcheon, played to perverse precision by Tommy Dewey, a high-profile magnate who endears himself to the masses through charity while maintaining plenty of disgusting secrets. His domineering father (a stellar Paul Raci) adds a layer of intrigue with his bizarre social affairs, not least his connection to Camilla Nygaard (another great turn by Hope Davis), a mysterious baroness with fingers in… well, all the pies.
Opposite them, blacks and Mexicans toil to survive. We get to know the Gallardo brothers, Mateo and Rafael (Peter Mendoza and Fabrizio Guido), whose misfortune threatens to blow the lid off the backdoor operations of the rich once Mason learns of their situation. Sharing any more plot details would spoil the viewing, but nobody will be surprised to learn that a major conflict is afoot, as is always the case with Perry Mason. The individual characters’ fates remain the narrative’s focus, but power play, racism, and political opportunism loom large.
This intoxicating combination of public, private, and professional woes is a winning formula that breathes new life into an old franchise. New showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler of The Knick fame are another jackpot. Smartly tilling each episode to deliver a smooth mystery cum procedural with plenty of twists and turns, they make things juicy and the story addictive. It is also more straightforward than the occasionally aimless first season. A fresh vision and an apt balancing of the show’s various arcs are likely one reason behind the season’s success. Another reason would certainly be the skillful calibration of the main figures, who all get lots of room to breathe and grow without getting lost in the meandering scripts (something that happened in the first season with Tatiana Maslany’s Sister Alice).
Speaking of main figures, Perry Mason’s large ensemble is a royal flush. Rylance imbues Della Street with much-needed kindness and empathy, acting as an antithesis to heartless manipulations of those in power and pedestrian bureaucrats who do their bidding. Chalk is especially brilliant as Paul Drake, whose frustrations and morally dubious side gigs threaten to destroy his humanity – and marriage. As he accepts one indecent proposal after another to get by, Drake will come dangerously close to being like the people he despises. By playing Drake straight, with a detached, hardened attitude brought about by his former police job and his race, Chalk gives us a dangerous man who could go off anytime. It is both exciting and horrific watching his fine balancing act unravel with each new blurred line. We’ll get to Rhys’ turn as Mason in a minute.
If the complexity of the leading trio and their circumstances is the show’s tachycardic heart, the many sidekicks and baddies are its blood flow. Hope Davis is chilling as the devious Camilla, whose ghostly presence disturbs cops and crooks alike. Justin Kirk also mesmerizes in a slightly expanded role as the DA and Della Street’s friend, Hamilton Burger. Like Street, he lives in the closet to protect his career, which is no way to live. The two former colleagues ally with one another and share a tender bond, but it’s more than a mere cliché about sexuality. Street’s and Kirk’s intellectual sparring provides a (shaky) ethical foothold to the ensemble’s myriad dilemmas and problems. Last but never least, Shea Whigham eats the screen up (again) in another hilarious, unhinged turn as Pete Strickland, another boozy gumshoe and Mason’s mentor.
Of course, at the center of Perry Mason is the astonishing Matthew Rhys as the show’s titular character. The Man With the World’s Second Saddest Eyes (the Saddest Eyes trophy is reserved for Mark Rylance) might be a sprightly and delectably funny chatterbox in real life, but onscreen he just disappears into roles of depressed, disillusioned, and angry men. His turn as the despondent Russian spy “Philip Jennings” in The Americans has already been hailed as one of the canonical performances in contemporary fiction. In Perry Mason, Rhys brings more of that suffocating anguish and questionable morals, but with a lethal dose of indignation that works precisely because one is never sure where exactly it all comes from.
In HBO’s reimagining of a once heroic attorney, Mason is always tired and angry; we are led to believe that his acrimonious quips have everything to do with the oppressive system he misguidedly believes he could dismantle, but there’s more cooking beneath the surface. In one of the standout scenes of the season, shot mostly as a closeup, Rhys manages to look dejected, desperate, spiteful, ashamed, and furious in the same glance. The many layers of Perry Mason become messy as they are peeled back and scrutinized, but the intricacy of his credo is what makes this show stand out in a sea of similar setups.
Again, to go into detail would mean to spoil the carefully constructed plot, so one must forgive the omission of a thorough analysis of Mason’s behavior. Nevertheless, the interplay of Mason’s endearing, almost childlike belief in justice and “fairness”, and the more ominous sides of his personality makes the series a rewarding watch throughout. As was the case in Season 1, on the one hand, we get an idealistic lawyer who will jump on “unwinnable” cases, hoping that he will stick it to the man and save innocent people.
In more than a handful of scenes, Mason keeps sneering at the police, the DA, the rich, other investigators, and anyone he believes is not as ethically sparkling as they should be. Ham Burger proposes a collaboration at one point. “now, who the fuck would want to be a part of that?” hisses Mason as he walks away, ending the conversation. On the other hand, we see a guy who will stop at nothing to prove a point, including criminal activity, a guy who will start a fistfight in front of his son, or screamingly threaten a love interest who has done nothing wrong.
Always on the cusp of going ballistic for whatever reason, Perry Mason is all the more compelling precisely because he’s aware of his shortcomings but still tries to find justice and peace. Oscillating between the infantile (“You like to think of yourself as this big savior,” one character denigrates him) and maturely pessimistic, he often shows us he is aware that there is no real winning when the game itself is rigged against the common people, but that the good fight still must go on. “Even when you win, Mr. Mason, you lose, and in the end, what are you left with?” a powerful tyrant taunts him.
Little does he know that, to Mason, what he is left with doesn’t matter as much as what society could gain from his sacrifice. A spirit of rebellion as strong as Mason’s could easily slip into the realm of fake white male martyrdom that so many shows have fallen victim to, but HBO, Amiel, Begler, and Rhys are too smart to die on that hill. Hence we get a righteous but deeply problematic man who knows he’s deficient but has no idea, nor the desire to figure out, how to improve himself. Mostly the latter.
Street and Drake often don’t fare much better than Mason in the integrity department. While charming and emotionally profound, all three protagonists can also be shockingly selfish and self-serving. Street disrespects her girlfriend, while Drake puts his reputation on the line because of pride. Despite frequent good humor, these are some tortured people navigating a tortured city, made all the bleaker by a neo-noir setup appropriate for the era.
HBO might be famous for its impeccably crafted programs, but this slickly shot era is no nostalgic piece. The story and steady direction play things cooly and straightforwardly, refusing to glamorize a period known for ubiquitous brutality, discrimination, and exploitation. The main topics are also, sadly, presently relevant, namely the discrimination against Latinos and hatred of immigrants. The dissonance between on-point costumes and slightly anachronistic speech reminds us of the timeless nature of oppression, the countless “-isms” that still plague our world, and the horrifying fact that the rich mostly get to do what they want with little accountability and no respect for the working class.
In fact, Perry Mason‘s creators, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, are so committed to hitting home with the commentary that some scenes and dialogue appear cartoonishly ham-fisted. There is an exchange in which a wealthy, powerful character deliberately physically maims a worker to prove a point. Many underlying individual and collective conflicts are told through heavy dialogue rather than shown within a broader context.
One can, however, be forgiven for the gladiatorial social critique. After all, the whole point of this reboot is to show us that knights in shining armor and just rulers are only fairytales. Individual victories mean little when, to quote Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons, the whole goddamned system is wrong, but these acts of personal defiance are sometimes the only thing keeping us from giving up. Perry Mason may (or may not) be able to secure a favorable court verdict for his downtrodden Mexican clients, but he alone cannot make up for the indignities they endure daily in the US.
Also, Della Street may get her personal life in order, but she will not be able to show her girlfriend in public in her lifetime if she is to keep her career. Paul Drake may be a stellar investigator, but he cannot prevent being looked down upon because he is black. If Perry Mason overwhelms with its constant questioning of the idea of justice and fairness, then good – it’s not meant to be a light pastime anyhow.
Perry Mason Season 2 is another triumph for HBO, Rhys, and the entire cast and crew. Making a period piece relevant and exciting in 2023 is a hefty accomplishment. While the season’s end feels like a resolution, there’s reason to hope for – and look forward to – another season. We’ve just gotten to know and love these folks, flaws and all.