The Case of Woke Perry Mason

The HBO Max series brings awareness to historical social issues, that, in some cases, didn’t even exist

The term “woke” is under a great deal of mockery lately, fairly justifiably really, since many of the people who use it can’t define it. For me, at least, woke represents the belief that the best way to solve social problems is to raise social awareness of them. This is a natural enough fit for popular culture. Raising awareness is about all the medium can realistically do, although like any creative decision, woke writing can go good, bad, or ugly. The new Perry Mason prequel series features all three forms of woke writing co-existing in the same setting, the all-white legal procedural making one established character black, another gay…and a couple of new ones for this season.

For a brief refresher on what Perry Mason is–the original nine-season 50s-60s TV show starred Raymond Burr in the title role as an ace attorney whose clients are always reasonably, but ultimately errantly, accused of murder. His secretary Della Street and private detective Paul Drake assist him. As the original show was a procedural, albeit one based on a series of novels, the HBO reboot couldn’t help but be radically different, and has much more of a 30s noir detective vibe. Aside from the character names, HBO’s Perry Mason has little in common with its most famous source material, although supposedly it hews a little closer to the original novels.

Paul Drake as a black man sounds gimmicky in this regard. And even setting aside skin tone, Chris Chalk looks nothing like William Hopper. Nor does he act like him. But this is actually really good, in terms of the story, because with Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason himself having more of a detective background, Chris Chalk’s Paul Drake effectively distinguishes himself. He’s a family man struggling to succeed against personal attacks, racial attacks, ethical attacks, financial attacks, basically any kind of attack you’d expect a black man from the 30s to suffer.

Not just Chris Chalk himself but the whole world he inhabits is subtly oppressive in a way that’s not present with his white co-stars. The nuance is excellent, getting into even grayer areas in the second season as Paul Drake ends up working against, with, and for a powerful black community leader whose whole power base straddles an awkward line between community organizing and organized crime. This works well with the greater murder case of the second season, with more white characters in similar positions of greater power making similar such compromises. This is good woke–making a previously white character black in a way that enhances the narrative.

Della and her ladies

Della Street, however, has a far more arbitrary, and bad, approach. Fans of Perry Mason have long known that despite clear chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry Mason and Della Street weren’t romantically involved. The original novels actually give feminist reasons for this- namely that for social reasons Della Street wouldn’t be able to keep working as the wife of a professional. But being accurate to the era isn’t enough for HBO’s Perry Mason. Della Street can’t be happy working as a secretary- she has to want to be a lawyer, this itself ironically buying into the generally misogynist devaluation of secretarial labor as unskilled work.

The bigger, badder wokeism of HBO’s Della Street is that she’s a lesbian, and not in the nuanced, well-written way that Paul Drake is an African-American. Della Street’s sexual orientation has almost nothing to with any of the actual story in either season of HBO’s Perry Mason. It just leads to some mostly pointless scenes with her girlfriend. The second season is worse in this regard than the first one, as Della Street gets a completely new girlfriend…despite her still having the girlfriend from the previous season, so there’s considerably more exposition for a very pointless subplot.

Now, to be entirely clear, Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason also gets romantic subplots in both seasons, which are also low points, for the exact same reason. They just don’t have very much to do with the case. That’s just regular bad writing. Della Street’s stories ascend to bad woke writing because in the second season especially, her romantic subplot takes up far more screentime, and it’s quite clear that the reason for this is that the show assumes that Della Street, lesbian, is topical and interesting in and of itself. Then in a move that’s such a comical doubling down on this situation it’s borderline self-parody, we find out that established Perry Mason character Hamilton Burger is also gay, and being blackmailed, and ends up being Della Street’s beard (and vice-versa).

All this does is establish that the 30s were a homophobic time period. This is a woke idea, but without any relation to the story, a largely meaningless one aesthetically. In an especially ironic flourish, Della Street’s big courtroom scene in the second season involves defaming a murder victim because he liked to choke women during sex. This is the exact same kind smear job that people used to put on gay people–as perverse–throughout this entire time period. Even if we grant that Della Street was enough of a careerist to not notice this parallel, HBO’s Perry Mason itself failing to do so and straight up turning the scene into a girlboss moment was just plain ugly.

Big in Japan?

But that’s not even the ugliest wokeism of HBO’s Perry Mason. The last one is some very, very subtle revisionism. We see noted in a few off scenes that Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, a topic of some controversy in this 1932 story. This history lesson becomes pivotal to the central murder case, however when Perry Mason and his team learn that the company owned by the murder victim’s father was illegally selling oil to Japan, and that he was threatening to expose the entire operation.

There’s just one problem with this. No one in the early 30s was illegally selling oil to Japan. They didn’t need to. Nobody was making any serious effort to try to restrict oil sales to Japan. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that relations with Japan got so bad for the United States government to pass an oil embargo, and this was such a red line that Japan retaliated with Pearl Harbor only four months later.

Why in the world would Perry Mason include a blatantly inaccurate historical detail like this? If I had to guess, it’s because their reference material here isn’t contemporaneous 30s history, but 40s-era World War II propaganda where the ongoing conflict with Japan was justified as having its origin in the invasion of Manchuria. Given how cynical Perry Mason is about American culture in this time period, the idea that anyone would care about Japan invading Manchuria, let alone be scared of people caring, is more off-brand than anything.

Ugly wokeisms like this are well-meaning but pernicious since they encourage envisioning history in a way that’s aesthetically gray but in actuality black-and-white. Pachinko featured similar historical moralizing that created the same problems. And as was the case with Pachinko, my beef with Perry Mason isn’t that they defame Imperial Japan’s honor, but that by acting like Imperial Japan was an obvious cartoon villain, the show obscures the question of why neither the United States nor anyone else did anything to try and stop them for several decades.

The answer? Because wokeism doesn’t work. Awareness doesn’t solve problems. Solutions solve problems. In a mostly abandoned plot thread of the second season, Perry Mason learns that the defendant from the first season later killed herself. The truth, as it turns out, doesn’t set you free, and moral righteousness isn’t enough to save the world. A narrative arc like that for a Perry Mason revival would have been fantastic- the ultimate repudiation of a TV series synonymous with the notion of an idealized criminal justice system. But aside from the Paul Drake side of the story, nothing in the new series really tears into these contradictions. Perry Mason just engages in weak, largely symbolic optimism–which tends to be what most people are criticizing when they mock the phrase woke, even if they can’t phrase it properly.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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