Originally Broadcast 2020
Starring Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin
Available on HBO Go
An infant boy is kidnapped and an exchange is set up. The parents will provide a $100,000 ransom to get their son back. They make the drop and rush to their son only to find him dead.
Perry Mason is an investigator working for a lawyer defending one of the parents against claims that they orchestrated the affair for their own personal gain. With the media spotlight falling heavily on the case and a District Attorney keen to use the case as a springboard to higher office, the odds seem to be firmly stacked against their efforts…
Though it starts slow, the show hits its groove by midseason. The casting is excellent and the characters’ journeys are compelling.
While millions of viewers will have grown up watching episodes of the long-running Raymond Burr series on television, my encounters with the character to date have been confined to the printed page. I have read and blogged about five of his earliest adventures on this site, finding them to be highly entertaining and engaging stories.
For those who haven’t read the Mason books of that era, our hero is less a courtroom performer than a scrappy, backroom lawyer. He is smart, resourceful and has principles though he is perfectly willing to cross the line and behave in ways that might well get him disbarred in the search for justice for his clients. This series leans heavily on this rough-around-the-edges interpretation of the character but is set several years earlier, exploring how he became that man.
Mason begins the series as a washed up shell of a man and he is not a qualified lawyer. Instead he is working as an investigator for the lawyer E. B. Jonathan, struggling to deal with the effects of his broken marriage and his harrowing experiences during the war. While I know that it was a shock to some that Mason isn’t even a lawyer at the start of the show, this first season does explore the way that he transitions from being in this washed-up state to becoming a lawyer himself. Think of it as Perry Mason Begins with us getting to see the pieces falling into place and how some of the things he has experienced cause him to practice law differently than many of the other lawyers around him.
Matthew Rhys is well suited to portraying this character at every stage of that evolution. His face is enormously expressive, allowing us to see what he is feeling and he seems to physically shift throughout the series, appearing more confident and powerful by the end. It is an impressive and nuanced performance, emphasizing the character’s humanity and the ways the details of this particular case come to affect him.
The case in question is that of the kidnapping of Charlie Dodson, an infant boy who was kidnapped from his parents’ home. A ransom demand was made for $100,000 which Matthew Dodson, the boy’s father, was able to get from his own father, the enormously wealthy Herman Baggerly. The parents follow the kidnappers’ instructions but when they rush to their son they find him dead with his eyes stitched open.
This tragic death is the starting point for the series as Mason is engaged as an investigator to look into the matter by the lawyer E. B. Jonathan who is working for Baggerly. The nature of the case is so shocking that it stirs up an enormous press and public interest. Maynard Barnes, the district attorney sees the case as a springboard he can use to launch his campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. E. B. Jonathan and, by extension, Mason sit on the other side of the case, defending those who are suspected to be guilty of orchestrating the crime for their own benefit.
The first few episodes are rather slow and ponderous, focusing on establishing each of the characters, their relationships to each other and building our understanding of exactly what the case against E. B.’s client will be. It probably doesn’t help that Mason can feel rather peripheral to the main story, particularly in the first episode which contains a rather tedious subplot where he and a colleague try to catch Chubby Carmichael, a prominent comedy film star, in flagrante.
I felt that the story became significantly more engaging following the conclusion to the series’ third episode. This is not a twist but rather a moment that heightens the tensions and serves to make E. B. Jonathan’s job all the harder. The episode that followed seemed to find a sharper focus than those up until that point, binding the different plot strands together much more closely and clearly.
While I am keen to avoid spoiling the various developments in the case, I can say that I found the final explanation of who orchestrated the kidnapping and why it went wrong to be both effective and convincing. Like the legal process itself, the case is sometimes rather slow-moving but that reflects both the workings of the court system and also that our focus is as much on the way the characters are affected by that process and how they interact with each other as it is the details of the case itself. I felt like each character was thoughtfully developed with several lingering in interesting gray areas.
One of the most interesting characters to me was Sister Alice played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). She is a preacher who leads the Radiant Assembly of God, whose meetings are rather reminiscent of those run by Sister Aimee during the 1920s and 30s incorporating lavish theatricals and acts of faith healing. Those sequences are gorgeously designed and performed, standing out as really colorful and lively, drawing an effective contrast with the otherwise quite muted color palette we see in Depression-era Los Angeles.
Her motivations for her actions throughout the season are often quite ambiguous and one of the biggest questions I had while watching was what her motivations were for interfering in the case. Maslany leans into that ambiguity very effectively, at times appearing quite helpful and sincere while at others her actions only seem to muddy the waters and make it harder for Mason to defend the client. While ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating in a mystery, here I felt it was used very effectively and I felt that by the final episode I had a strong handle on her character and the reasons for her various choices thoroughout the season.
I was similarly very impressed by Gayle Rankin, an actor who I had previously admired in Netflix’s GLOW (she plays Sheila the She-Wolf in that show). I felt she did a superb job of bringing to life the various conflicted feelings that Emily would feel as Charlie’s mother as she struggles to cope both with her grief and also her feelings of guilt that her own actions may have made the kidnapping possible. Rankin is able to portray different facets of each of those feelings, creating a character that feels both dimensional and credible even when we don’t agree with her actions, making her more than simply a victim.
John Lithgow is rightly being celebrated for his performance as E. B. Jonathan, a lawyer at the end of his career who is frustrated by his inability to protect his client. He really draws out the character’s humanity, creating a character whose frustrations we feel and share. Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Root as Barnes, the District Attorney who sees an opportunity to engage with voters’ sympathies and ruthlessly pursues it. I really enjoyed seeing these two actors playing off each other, particularly in the scenes that take place in court.
Finally I have to give praise to Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk, the actors playing Della Street and Paul Drake. Where all the other series characters have to shift to fill their eventual roles, Della is essentially in place at the start of the series working as a legal secretary, albeit for E. B. rather than Perry Mason. This role is enormously important to the series however as she is ultimately responsible for the really inexperienced Perry stepping into a courtroom and helping him through that process. She also gets to make several important contributions to the shaping of the case.
One alteration that is made to the character is that she is portrayed as a lesbian, living secretly with her girlfriend in a boarding house. This does not sit entirely with the flirtations and jealousies towards Perry we see Della engage in during these early books, particularly in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though I am personally not too worried about that sort of continuity. The core of the character, particularly her values, her comptence and her willingness to tell Perry what she thinks are all present and correct and I am excited to see how the character continues to develop in the second season.
I was more familiar with Chris Chalk who had appeared as Lucius Fox in Gotham, the Batman prequel series. Paul Drake begins the series as a uniformed cop who is told that he will never make detective in spite of his aptitude for the job because of his race. Like Mason, Drake has to find his place and realize what he values and who he wants to be. I thought that the character had an interesting journey and that Chalk plays well off Rhys once their paths cross. I am looking forward to seeing him take a more central role in future seasons.
The final aspect of the show that I want to mention is its visual style. It is an impressive evocation of the era and place in which it is set. Depression-era Los Angeles is brought to life with plenty of atmosphere and period detail. As I previously alluded to, the color palette tends towards black, gray and sepia tones which feels appropriate both to the setting and the tone of the piece. It also means that when you do see splashes of color they stand out all the more.
Between the cinematography and costuming, the characters and performances I found a lot to like in this first season and I am glad that it has already been renewed for a second. It does get off to a slow start but I felt it found its groove by the fourth episode, finishing strongly with compelling seventh and eighth episodes. I think the core elements put in place here are strong and bode well for future seasons. The one thing I’d love to see is for the show to mimic the way Gardner would setup the next case at the end of last, giving us an image or idea to hook our interest in that next client.