DVD Review: Perry Mason: The Complete First Season

By: Chris Chan

The most glaring problem with the new HBO series Perry Mason is that the creators wanted to make a gritty noir story filled with the darker side of human nature and present-day social concerns, but someone decided that the series needed name recognition, so the narrative was crafted as an origin story for Erle Stanley Gardner’s venerable character.

It’s a shame, really, that the Perry Mason series is the only one of Gardner’s many crime fiction series to have any traction in the public imagination.  Gardner has a bunch of other series that would make for excellent television shows, including his “D.A.” series about Doug Selby, a young and ambitious district attorney who was Mason’s equivalent on the other side of the aisle.  Over the course of the series, Selby prosecutes several cases that reveal deep-seated corruption that have become embedded in a fictional California county.  (A few details of the Selby saga appear to have been taken and applied to the new Perry Mason series.)  Lester Leith, a brilliant criminal with a moral streak and who knowingly keeps an uncover police officer out to get him as his valet, is another fine series.  My favorite, the Cool and Lam series, about a physically diminutive private eye who is often beaten up by antagonists, and his more imposing female boss, once got a pilot episode decades ago that never became a regular series, possibly because the pilot stripped down the plot of one novel and diluted the characterizations.

My point is that the show’s creators didn’t need to turn Perry Mason into something nearly unrecognizable.  Every theme or characterization change is present in one of Gardner’s other series, and any of these could have been turned into a series, especially Doug Selby’s tales, which hit most of the same thematic notes that the HBO series embraces, though not the same explicit content, which is par for the course at HBO.  I’m not sure if the creators knew about these other series and decided to blend all the darkest aspects of Gardner’s many series into one amalgamated and adulterated Gardnerland, or if they just decided on the aspects of Los Angeles noir they wanted to focus upon in their show.  The creators are very familiar with the original novels, as everywhere you look, there are references to the original stories, ranging from name-dropping a client from an early novel, to setting up the introduction of Gertie the switchboard operator in a future season.

Notably, the show itself is actually good… it just isn’t the Perry Mason fans are familiar with, both in terms of Raymond Burr’s urbane and ethical pillar of society, or the twisty mysteries where the careful clueing is thoroughly explained by the novel’s end.  It’s not even the more roguish version of Mason from the early novels, before Gardner adjusted the character to match the straitlaced TV version.  If the show had simply called the series Original L.A. Noir Legal Series with original characters, classic Perry Mason fans such as myself wouldn’t be so frustrated by the changes.

First of all, there’s a very strong cast, even if at times their connections to the original characters is pretty much just sharing the same name.  Matthew Rhys brings a great, gritty intensity to the title role.  In this re-imagining, Mason starts out as an unscrupulous, unlucky private detective (somewhat reminiscent of a moral morally ambiguous Donald Lam), and is gradually drawn into the legal profession.  The way he actually gets barred feels like a cheat, as the show implies that being a great defense attorney is all about showmanship in the courtroom, when in fact Mason’s success has always been about his (and Gardner’s) thorough knowledge of the intricacies of the law, and how every loophole may be turned to his advantage.  As the show begins he’s a broken man, suffering from a broken marriage and out of his son’s life.  There’s a short scene where we meet his ex-wife, who’s written to be cold and unlikeable, so we don’t get any real insight into their relationship.  Perry Mason introduces Mason’s estranged family just to set the scene– he’s broke and crawling into a liquor bottle for comfort, but his becoming a deadbeat dad is all about personal issues too crippling to control.  Of course, after looming heavily over the first half of the series, Mason’s family is then essentially dropped from the plot, with the implication that they’ll be just fine without him, so he can focus on all his energy on his career.  Sadly, this is all part of a general cultural trend of making “father” a disposable title.

The treatment of Mason’s young son is particularly annoying to me, as the boy is prevented from showing any of the very common (yet often ignored) emotions that most kids in his position feel.  The “Bechdel Test” is commonly and rather smugly applied to many works of entertainment, and I hereby propose “The Chan Test.”  The Chan Test asks, that when a child is incorporated into a creative work, the question should be asked: “Would there be any real difference to the work if the kid were replaced with a cute puppy?”  A quick scene shows Mason’s a caring dad, who loves the boy, but after seeing a replacement father figure at work for three seconds, Mason decides the kid will be fine without him.  Of course, the boy never is  allowed to have anything to say about the situation– no words of relief at seeing his father, anguish over the shattering of his family, anger over feeling powerless, or trepidation over an uncertain future are viewed, and the poor kid certainly has no opportunity to actually do anything to change his situation.  To pass the Chan Test, a child character must be allowed to show emotions that do not simply reflect or justify the plans and desires of the adult characters, and the child’s actions should affect either the plot or the characters (or both) in some way.  As it is, the “Mason’s estranged family” subplot is a waste, covering ground we’ve seen a thousand times in the past.

Many of Mason’s personal issues stem from his terrible experiences in World War One.  This certainly happened enough in real life.  The problem is, PTSD from wartime horrors is now the go-to character shaper to darken the psyches of classic fictional detectives.  The recent The ABC Murders had a horrible WWI massacre redirecting the course of Hercule Poirot’s life and soul.  Sherlock had Watson’s limp be psychosomatic, the result of his experiences in Afghanistan.  Even the BBC’s Father Brown has the title character occasionally reflecting on the horrors of the war in which he served. Linking Mason’s mindset to the war is realistic, but it’s also overdone.

Nevertheless, Rhys is really effective as this new version of Mason.  He’s intense, enthusiastic, and I like the way he rises from the ashes as he finds his calling in life.  Every minute Rhys is on screen, he delivers an emotionally resonant performance, and I liked how he recovers his moral compass and self-respect as the story progresses.

The problem is that he’s no longer as strong a character as traditional Mason is.  Hobbled by the wounds in his psyche, Rhys’s Mason falls into the eye-rolling contemporary obsession with making every would-be strong male character dependent on the wisdom and/or approval of an even stronger female character.  Hence, Juliet Rylance’s Della Street must always be there to chastise Mason and deliver regular body blows to his ego, and she never takes a moment to marvel at her boss’s brilliance, as she always did in her previous incarnations.  Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is a Black police officer who eventually becomes fed up with the racism and corruption of the force.  Rylance and Chalk are both really good in their roles, even if they have to battle the screenwriters putting their thumbs on the scales by shoehorning present-day concerns and obsessions into a 1932-set story.  A couple of familiar names are now members of the LGBT community, sex is everywhere, profanity is as common as sunlight, and the chief concerns of contemporary editorial pages appear here and there.

Outside of the regular characters, Shea Whigham is memorable as a frustrated P.I., Tatiana Maslany confirms that she is one of her generation’s brightest talents as an Aimee Semple McPherson-esque revivalist, and John Lithgow gives a quietly tragic turn as Mason’s legal mentor.  Justin Kirk’s wink-at-the-camera introduction as Hamilton Burger also made me smile, as I looked forward to seeing the development of his relationship with Mason.

The show certainly looks terrific.  It’s a period piece, and the costuming, the set design, and all of the other production values are high quality.  Also, viewers should pay attention to the closing credits, as the wonderful theme music from the classic show slowly but surely makes appearances as motifs in the end music, before finally launching into a double-barreled rendition in the final episode.

Unlike the original series, this isn’t an episodic drama.  Instead, it focuses on one case told over eight episodes.  A baby is kidnapped, and when the parents try to pay the ransom, the results are tragic.  Is the kidnapping connected to the baby’s wealthy grandfather?  What role does a mysterious and increasingly popular L.A. church have to play in the mystery?  It’s not a bad premise at all, but the screenwriters make a point of leaving some clues and plot threads dangling– literally– and the ambiguity only serves to divorce the 2020 series further from Gardner’s original conception, where the truth was always knowable if your mind was sufficiently sharp and imaginative.

Another major difference between the current show and the source material is that Gardener was a social reformer, not just somebody wallowing in the mire of human shortcomings. Gardner was an activist for criminal justice reform, and as part of a group of like-minded professionals known as The Court of Last Resort, he advocated for more humane and effective punishment and rehabilitation, and helped clear the names of many innocent people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes.  For Gardner, the deeply flawed system could be reformed with the applications of psychology, honesty, and a willingness to try fresh approaches.  In Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, the prosecutors and police are mostly decent men, but their Achilles’ heel is their insistence that everything is fine with the current criminal justice system, and that the defendants are always guilty, otherwise they wouldn’t be on trial in the first place.  It’s this faulty reasoning that spurred Gardner on, and his works consistently pilloried a misguided faith in the false idol of a perfect system that always worked properly.

In contrast, in the HBO series, certain D.A.’s and cops aren’t just misguided, but they’re actually deeply corrupt, ambitious, and self-interested men who are wicked and venal to the core.  Rather than the more nuanced zealots of Gardner’s fiction who adhere to the false gospel that everything in the criminal justice system is fine, these men aren’t just propagators of the problems, they are the problems, due to their determination to pad their own pockets and fuel their massive ambitions.  There’s a massive gulf between one good man against an imperfect system and one flawed man against an inextricably crooked system.  The tones, the revelations of the truth, and the ultimate morals are completely different between the 2020 show and past incarnations.  While Gardner’s original fictional universe saw reforming society as a war that could be won one battle at a time, the HBO show is the story of a world that’s fallen and can’t get up.

Perry Mason is a high-quality and promising show.  It just doesn’t reflect the spirit of the original books or the show, and I’m getting sick of the “More darkness!  More grittiness!” approach to reimagining classics.  If they’d called the show Louie the Lawyer, I’d be an enthusiastic fan.  However, as this is appropriating the good name of Perry Mason, I can’t help but feel deep disappointment as a franchise I deeply love is given a soul transplant and is processed into something almost unrecognizable.


–Chris Chan

Perry Mason: The Complete First Season



DVD $24.98

Blu-Ray $29.98