Perry Mason (2020)

5 out of 5

Created by: Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald

covers season 1

A review I’d read, prior to starting to watch HBO’s 2020 Perry Mason mini-series, praised many elements, but checked the underwhelming story.

In the era of streaming and event TV, I understand this point of view: when something is lacking a big or easy Talking Point – be it an elevator pitchable hook or water cooler-type Did You See / confuzzled plot review chatter – it’s hard to understand its place in the current TV landscape.  Based On A Book You Should Read, or Featuring That Big Name Actor, or other things I could capitalize.  You know the score.  A low-key detective series / court procedural based on a series of books written in the 30s?… Maybe you watched the black and white version of its previous TV adaptation with your grandparents in the 60s?…  These don’t necessarily inspire the type of rave reviews that earn instant viewers.

M’self – I’m a pulp fan.  I haven’t read any of the Mason books, but I have read some of author Erle Stanley Gardner’s Hard Case Crime entries and have enjoyed them, and yes, I did watch the show with my grandparents, quite often.  I don’t know if I’m the ideal fan for Mason, but the decision to cast Matthew Rhys in the lead role – whom I grew to love during The Americans – would’ve likely grabbed my eye either way, and stuffing the remainder of the cast with so, so much talent (Juliet Rylance, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor… it’s insane, seriously) guaranteed I wouldn’t be looking away at any non-Rhys starring scenes.  Eight episodes later, all those selling points aside, I’d kick any underwhelming-story doubts to the curb: we used to get shows like this, and movies like this, and books like this, in which the setting is more than dress-up and breathes life, and the characters are more than people reading their lines and fully immerse you in their roles, and the story can’t be summed up in a single sentence or two and doesn’t require a billion bucks to pull off but is gripping and intense all the same…  Nowadays, you’re more likely to get adjacent experiences boiled down to 22-episode serials or direct-to-video type affairs; Perry Mason, dolled up with a budget admittedly allowed for by having Robert Downey attached as a producer and HBO plunking down big bucks is the crime noir show other more “notable” shows would love to be, and tramples all over the wayward and distracting mystery / -ies of something like True Detective with a smart, logical, emotional tale populated by amazing actors acting as damned believable human beings.

We open with some criss-crossing narratives: a kidnapped child is returned to mother and father dead; a crooked cop shows up at a meet with some money and offs all the other participants; a black beat cop proves much more capable and intelligent than is safe for him to be in 30s LA; and Perry Mason, private detective, having botched the chance to get paid on his last snoop job, takes up a job for lawyer E.B. Jonathan, which ties back in to that murdered child, and crooked cop, and the beat cop.  But isn’t Mason a lawyer?  Indeed.  Consider this his origin story.

While the show does the normal mystery shindig of doling out details in a bit-by-bit fashion, several important ways in which this is handled helped to keep me absolutely immersed, especially: that it plays fair with those details.  There are no shadowy characters off-screen – if something happens, we generally see who’s involved – and we learn things as Mason does, and Mason learns them through logical piecing together of information which he has to beat the pavement to procure.  Nothing comes easy or via plot-hole leaps.  Also, while there are subplots galore, they’re treated in this same precise manner: what we see is either relevant to the plot or to the characters; it never feels like we’re chasing a red herring storyline just to fill up space.  It’s been a while since I’ve watched a show where every moment felt important or interesting.

Like, I’d assume, a lot of modern TV-watchin’ folks, I’m often multi-tasking while my media is on.  A prize earned by a few is my full attention: that I’ll stop what I’m doing to watch.  And then a special few get the heralded rewatch: after about four episodes of Mason, I was enjoying it so much that I decided to start completely over, and not even give it the stop-and-start treatment, but dedicated viewing time.  Those rewatched episodes were even more grabbing when viewed back-to-back, and made the wait for more, each week, very satisfying when the new episode finally dropped.  And to my immense satisfaction – this held up through the very end of the season.

Whether or not I was the ideal viewer… I wasn’t alone.  HBO has greenlit a second season.  I cannot wait.