Television Series Review: Perry Mason

Denisa and I finished the new season of the Perry Mason prequel last night on HBO. I’d been excited for the show. Matthew Rhys (of The Americans fame) is a solid actor, and I wanted to see what they did with the character. I watched a whole ton of the Perry Mason made-for-TV movies that came out in the 80s, though I’ve never seen the original TV show. What would an HBO version of the character be like?

Pretty excellent, it turns out. As a prequel set in the 30s, they went full noir with the material, and that’s a genre I’m already very inclined to like. The season focuses on several main character arcs and one central trial. It shows how Perry went from being an embittered private detective to a slightly-less-but-maybe-more embittered defense attorney. It fleshes out the back story of his supporting cast (Della Street, etc.), diving into some of the racial tensions that would have been present at the time, but not doing it in an overly preachy way. (I prefer it when a show or a film trusts me enough to be able to reach conclusions on my own without being hammered over the head with them, something many historical pieces just can’t seem to hold themselves back from.)

Beyond the main characters, there are some great side arcs as well. There’s Perry’s lawyer mentor, played by John Lithgow in another good round of acting. There is a revivalist-style church that’s swept through Los Angeles, with a vibrant woman at its center. And then there’s the main case: a kidnapping gone wrong, with a dead baby at the middle of it all.

It’s a pretty bleak series,which is very fitting for the noir tone to it all, something that is heightened by the trumpet soundtrack. I mean, all it’s really missing is Bogart giving a voice over, and you’d be set. Perhaps this would be too much for some. I loved it.

Being an HBO show, it (naturally) has to prove how gritty it is with the inclusion of adult material. For the most part, however, it refrains from anything gratuitous, and it keeps the entire thing character-driven. That’s what I enjoyed the most about the series. I found the characters to be complex and riveting, able to surprise me in good ways and not gimmicky twists. While the central case may not leave you guessing all the way up to the final episode, the narrative arc will keep you hooked to the end for sure.

Of course, if what people really wanted was a Perry Mason encore, they might leave disappointed. This feels much more noir than Mason, and while that might be perfect for me, I did wonder if some might object. (It was a nice touch that they threw in the old theme music at the end of the finale, though I didn’t particularly care for the jazzed up version of it.)

All in all, it made for a thoroughly entertaining ten episodes. If you’re in the mood for some noir and you’ve got an HBO account, this is a great season, and I’m looking forward to more in the future. 8/10

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