HBO's 'Perry Mason' reboot is very noir, very HBO and nothing like the versions you watched

Set in the 1930s, this Mason has to deal with intractable police corruption, racism, homophobia and sexism. One starts to wonder how much truly changed.
Matthew Rhys in "Perry Mason" on HBO
Matthew Rhys in "Perry Mason" on HBOHBO
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By Sam Thielman

“Wolves don’t care about truth,” a worldly lawyer tells intrepid paralegal Della Street (Juliet Rylance) in HBO’s interestingly willful revival of classic detective series “Perry Mason.” “They only care about meat.”

It’s a good line, and one you probably wouldn’t have read in the staid works of Erle Stanley Gardner, author of more than 80 detective novels starring the defense attorney and his assistant (or, as she was formally known then, his "secretary") Della. But HBO's Mason is pointedly not the Perry Mason of the 1930s movies, the wholesome 1957 to 1966 CBS series or the 30 television movies that aired on NBC from 1985 until 1995 (starring some of the remaining cast members from the original series). In many ways, the reboot is more a spiritual sequel to HBO’s plot-heavy Prohibition-era crime drama “Boardwalk Empire,” and it takes more of its cues from the hard-boiled, no-good-guys period thrillers of James Ellroy than from Gardner’s comfortable potboilers where the good guy always wins — the right way.

Thus the “Perry Mason” reboot feels odd if you ever watched "Perry Mason." Every line, character brief and plot twist screams 1940s noir, practically to the point of parody — there’s even a subplot about a Hollywood tabloid and a crazy tent-revivalist preacher with interwoven threads following estranged children. But the camera isn’t noirish at all: “Perry Mason” is shot exactly like every period drama the network has ever aired, with special attention lavished on the opulent sets and costumes. And, during the first 10 minutes, there’s an absolutely vile act of brutal violence explicitly depicted; there’s a gratuitous, porny sex scene along the way; and there’s a cast of workaday character actors who’ll have you perpetually saying to yourself, “Oh, it’s that guy! What was he in?”

But once the new “Perry Mason,” written by career TV writer Ron Fitzgerald and the brilliant playwright Rolin Jones, settles down, it’s a tense, surprisingly funny whodunit about the breadth of Los Angeles during the Great Depression. It has more plot twists than “The Big Sleep” and probably a few too many characters — I was having trouble keeping up by the end of the series’ eight episodes — but I don’t know who I’d cut.

Stephen Root’s mustache-twitching turn as the villainous district attorney would be the series highlight of another show; here, it’s a single course in a feast that includes John Lithgow’s irascible defense attorney, Rylance’s Hepburn-ish Della, Shea Whigham’s earthy private investigator, Jefferson Mays as the amusingly creepy coroner and, of course, Matthew Rhys, late of “The Americans,” as Perry Mason himself (Rhys replaced Robert Downey Jr. in 2019).

Rhys is beyond wonderful. In a show with so much deliberately callous violence, every cruelty seems to etch another line in his character’s face. There’s a tendency toward heroic wallowing and nihilism in the more contemporary crime fiction on which this “Perry Mason” is drawing; instead, Rhys’ Perry is the show’s moral center, telling us we’re right to be horrified and angry on behalf of people who can’t get justice and unimpressed by powerful bigots.

But if the actors are propping up plots that take about an episode and a half to get into gear, that may be because the show has been drastically reworked. Originally, ultrabro “True Detective” auteur Nic Pizzolatto was given the helm of this revival of “Perry Mason,” which is strange for a property that owes much of its original success to pathbreaking executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, the only woman who was working as a primetime network executive producer at all, anywhere, during the original series’ nine-year run on CBS. The reworked series is far better than anything Pizzolatto seems capable of writing, and Rhys brings a hangdog sincerity that simply isn’t Downey’s scenery-gnawing stock in trade.

This version of “Perry Mason” is also remarkably timely: The series' Los Angeles Police Department of 1932 is an unambiguously bad outfit, filled with racists, rife with corruption and a haven for the worst people in the city. (It's not far off from the truth.) The show’s depiction of what one would hope are now outmoded racist attitudes — though that doesn't seem to be universally the case — can be hard to stomach, but it doesn’t ring false. It’s a project that tries hard to encompass experiences that often get short shrift in popular fiction about the period: of gay people living at a time of universal contempt, of Black Americans living under Jim Crow, of women before women’s liberation.

Perhaps most daringly, it imagines what amounts to justice outside the courtroom. Many of Perry’s antics on the show (as in some of the earliest novels) are flatly illegal. Often, his enemy seems to be the structures that the law protect. HBO’s “Watchmen” already returned racialized violence to public discourse in 2019 for its depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre and more, but “Watchmen” ultimately decided that enforcing the law was heroic and the problem is that the good guys didn’t have enough power.

"Perry Mason," on the other hand, has a problem with power itself. That’s a different kind of heroism — and maybe a more useful one.