Perry Mason: 1.01 Chapter One

It has plenty of style but does the opening episode shine?

Running for nine seasons between 1957 and 1966, Perry Mason was a courtroom drama centred around Richard Burr’s titular titular criminal defense attorney. For me, Perry Mason was all about subsequent big, dramatic TV movies of the 80s and early 90s, starting with Perry Mason Returns in 1985, all the way up to Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss before the actor’s death in 1993. I have fond memories of the big courtroom twists and Fred Steiner’s sweeping orchestral theme. I can quite firmly lay my love of courtroom drama at the feet of Perry Mason, that music and Burr’s iconic performance.

The new prequel series from HBO is not the Perry Mason of old. While Matthew Rhys (The Americans) certainly brings some grit and gravitas to the titular role, this 1930s-based drama, charting Mason’s rise in the midst of the Great Depression, is more crime noir than courtroom drama. HBO s goal is to explore his gritty past, a story I’m not sure anyone was calling our for. This isn’t the show I watched with my family as a child. It has the usual HBO brand of violence, bad language and sexual content and an opening that is sure to disturb even the strong of heart. Family viewing, this is not.

Rhys himself is a broken man, divorced and estranged from his son and haunted by his experiences from the First World War. There are hints at his investigative skills and intuition, but it is largely buried under drink, sex, profanity and some questionable actions. He’s quite happy to wear the tie from a John Doe in the morgue. But the groundwork is laid; his connections with John Lithgow’s attorney Elias Birchard ‘E.B.’ Jonathan and an updated Della Street in Juliet Rylance as he takes on the case of a dead child in a ransom case gone terribly wrong. His current role as a sleazy PI -taking gratuitous photographs of a Hollywood star and upcoming starlet sees him attempt to up the price when the scope of his case threatens to embarrass the studio that hired him. Unfortunately, his over ambition is his undoing, finding himself firmly put in place by a studio executive and his thugs. Yet despite all this, there is something rather humbling in Rhys’s performance; the anger at not being able to see his son is a particular emotional hook for the character.

He is backed up by an impressive cast. Rylance makes a strong impression as Della and Lithgow is as superb as always. Robert Patrick, Shea Whitman and Veronica Falcón are all strong players in this rich ensemble, Falcón in particular exuding confidence and power as Mason’s neighbour and sexual confidant. There’s more to come, with Tatiana Maslany, who delivered some of the best TV performances of recent years in Orphan Black, looking to appear in episode two. Arguably there isn’t a dud performance in the house.

The episode looks stunning too; 30’s LA is recreated with all its grit and majesty; from the gorgeous snow ball of the New Year’s party to grimy back allies; costumes, cars and set pieces are all vividly absorbing, making it another one of  HBO‘s classy, prestige productions. However, in recreating this rich film noir world, it certainly looses something of what makes it identifiably Perry Mason. While the classic theme would have been a welcome addition, potentially enriched as a jazzy, 30s swing version, the minimalist music and a title character that has a far way to go before transforming into the memorable defence attorney of the original series, means it often feels completely disconnected with the show it is supposed to precede. If Rhys’s character wasn’t called Perry Mason, you wouldn’t know it is supposed to be a prequel.

It is rather dark too. The aforementioned dead child, discovered by his parents sets the scene well, while the sequence in the morgue where Mason examines the dead corpse, it’s eyelids sewn shut, is very macabre and sure to put some people off. There’s plenty of violence too, though not as much as you might expect – the sequence where the child’s killers are killed off one by one and one man is chased across the rooftop to the backdrop of fireworks is almost stylised in its bloodshed.

It’s hard to tell quite where Perry Mason is going after Chapter One. The show looks gorgeous; it’s dark and gritty and a powerful cast and a stunning recreation of 1930’s LA. But we haven’t really seen Perry Mason do what we know best and a number of narrative threads feel disconnected at present. The first episode feels more concerned with world building than story building, but at least, by the time the credits rolled, we had a sense of Mason’s life at this point. I do hope it gathers some momentum though. There’s plenty of style but we need a bit more substance.


Updated: Jun 23, 2020

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