HBO: Special Mason Unit

Matthew Rhys stars in a dark, gritty reboot of ‘Perry Mason’

As a kid, I thought Raymond Burr was an asshole. Condemned to an eternity of black and white, locked into a church elder’s suit and tie, and mostly seen bullying witnesses in a courtroom, Burr was inseparable from his most famous character. He didn’t stand a chance with me, and I never watched a single episode of his Perry Mason.

But the trailer for HBO’s reboot was my kind of gloomy. My longtime crush Matthew Rhys sports a perpetual, anachronistic five o’clock shadow. He mumbles about justice to the tune of gloomy mid-career Radiohead. We get religious fanatics and gritty war action. There’s hardly a courtroom in sight. If you’re familiar with Erle Stanley Gardner’s roughly gajillion procedurals or any of the adaptations, it’s fair to wonder what the hell this has to do with source material that pretty much launched a million imitation courtroom dramas, from John Grisham to Law & Order.

How dare you. This isn’t TV, it’s HBO.

Reinventing the classic

HBO: Perry Mason rebirths the titular hero as a failed dairy farmer and low-rent gumshoe in Depression-era Los Angeles. Yes, you read that right. They’ve also thrown Mason an alcohol problem, post-World War I PTSD, a “blue ticket” military discharge for gay stuff that disappointingly hasn’t yet warranted a flashback, and the nifty nom de guerre “The Butcher of Monfalcone.” All that and no law degree?

Mason and his foul-mouthed partner (the terrific Shea Whigham) are wrapping up The Case of the Obese Slapstick Idol Who Likes to Eat Pumpkin Pie Off Ingenue Woo-woos when they’re approached by attorney and general fan of the word “boyo,” E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow).

E.B.’s client is a rich dude (Robert Patrick) whose son (Nate Corddry) and daughter-in-law (Gayle Rankin, great as Sheila the She-Wolf on GLOW) may have been involved in their own child’s kidnapping and brutal murder. Or maybe the case involves charismatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her Radiant Assembly of God church. Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure. Mason fights for justice for the underdog, even if he sometimes drunkenly bashes apart his estranged son’s toy fire truck with a baseball bat.

Boardwalk Empire veterans Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald plunge into their reboot’s period depravity with flippant aplomb. Fair warning to anyone with a low tolerance for gore: The first two episodes make Saw 2 look like an episode of Bob the Builder.

Prestige TV?

It’s as HBO as HBO gets, and that’s part of the problem. The atmosphere is oppressive. Perry Mason never lets you forget that in 1930s Los Angeles, everyone is racist, violent and sexist. There’s hardly a moment of glee in a show that has a chonky vaudeville dude performing Thanks-llatio in its first 10 minutes. (Granted, that’s after a cold open with a brutal child murder.)

Mason stalking the streets instead of the courthouse, finding Della Street (Juliet Rylance) working for E.B. instead of Perry, or seeing investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) walking the beat as a put-upon cop may throw seasoned Perry Mason fans. Likely, those same fans will be more stymied by a hangdog Mason tossing around F-bombs and the occasional N-word while lacerating himself in a depressive funk.

Lightening the load

For its first few episodes, HBO: Special Mason Unit forgets that the best noir is balanced by humor. Hell, the best HBO is that way. Every John Snow needs a Tyrion Lannister.

After a few episodes, the blood stains give way to ink stains. Humor manages to elbow its way into the proceedings. Rhys peps up enough to wing some books at a corrupt public defender while swigging from a bottle he yoinked from a law library hidey-hole. That’s right about the time Justin Kirk shows up as Hamilton Burger and launches a devious plan to expedite the bar exam in Perry’s favor.

All of the sudden, Perry Mason turns into something fun, and deserving of the second season HBO already ordered.

Jonpaul Henry Guinn

Jonpaul Henry Guinn is a freelance writer, former Geeks Who Drink Pub Quiz staff writer, "Jeopardy" also-ran, pub quiz host, and U.S. army veteran. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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