Why you should be watching Perry Mason
James R | On 23, Apr 2023
Season 2 premieres on 2nd May 2023. This review is based on Season 1 and was originally published in August 2020.
“No one confesses on the stand,” Perry Mason is told in no uncertain terms as HBO’s revival of the iconic legal drama reaches its typically high-stakes conclusion. It’s a statement of intent for the reboot, one that casts the do-gooder lawyer in a new light, and drags him into the modern age – even the whole thing is set in 1930s Los Angeles.
Matthew Rhys stars as Mason, who is a private investigator when we first meet him. Strung out, down on his luck and prone to drinking and shouting at his ex over the phone about seeing his estranged son, he’s as flawed as someone can get without having the word “antihero” tattooed on their face. And yet he finds himself stumbling into the biggest case in the city’s history: the kidnapping and death of Charlie Dodson, a baby boy who fetched a a $100,000 ransom and was the grandson of mogul Herman Baggerly.
Hired by Herman, Mason exposes all manner of seedy scandal involving Charlie’s mother, Emily (Gayle Rankin), her friend, George (Aaron Stanford), and – most intriguing of all – Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatian Maslaney).
From the opening episode, it’s no surprise that the answer to all of this will involve the LAPD, with writers Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald, and Kevin J. Hynes immediately framing corruption as the show’s Big Bad. But what is surprising is the way in which the show goes about exploring and exposing that corruption.
Chris Chalk is superb as Paul Drake, a Black officer trying to find his place within a prejudiced immoral police force, and his interactions with Mason are bursting with promise. So, too, do Mason’s increasingly heated exchanges with Della (Juliet Rylance), the secretary of his mentor, EB, who isn’t afraid to put him in his place and stand up against the similarly corrupt patriarchal society that has enabled and empowered the authority of its dodgy boys in blue. (John Lithgow as EB also enjoys several scene-stealing moments.)
If the subplot surrounding Sister Alice and her cult-like following never quite delivers on its potential, the show more than makes up for it with the gorgeous period details that bring to life its sleazy backdrop. Not since LA Confidential has there been such a stylish, slick recreation of Hollywood’s darkly brutal heyday, soundtracked by Terence Blanchard’s note-perfect, atmospheric jazz score – always several modulations away from mere pastiche.
At the centre of this evocative, moody study of a fallen metropolis is the one man we trust to shine a light on the cracks in civilisation – and Matthew Rhys is clearly enjoying himself as the iconic crusader. Barely a scene goes by where Rhys doesn’t yell at someone about a moral imperative or get angry over the immorality around him – and it’s wonderful to watch the actor go hell for boot leather, willing to get down and dirty, even it’s just to pick up his still-smouldering cigarette butt from the pavement. Even his hat has attitude to spare.
He’s matched by a show that’s willing to take its time to tease out truths and meet expectations. It’s only halfway through the season that Perry actually moves from being a PI to taking the bar exam – and even then, it feels more like a move driven by necessity than lifelong vocation. His initial moments in court are brilliantly shaky and nervous, while the knowing script makes a point of not letting him have the cliched moment of badgering a witness into an impromptu confession on the stand.
The likelihood – or lack thereof – of that ever happening is underlined by Justin Kirk’s likeable assistant district attorney Hamilton Burger (everyone in this show has excellent names), who gives Mason guidance and advice as he enters the legal ring. And that ability to both dial down the cheesier tendencies of the original Perry Mason while building up the ensemble surrounding its protagonist turns HBO’s update into a thrillingly slow-burn achievement – this is an origins tale that isn’t afraid to use six hours to assemble the pieces for future seasons, rather than dive into a case-of-the-week format with less time for characterisation. The result leaves you ready and raring for a second outing. Matthew Rhys in a hat taking down corrupt cops? Case closed.
Perry Mason Season 1 is available on Sky Atlantic. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.