Nearly 100 years after its creation, Perry Mason remains a paradigm of the honest lawyer. Swift justice was the order of the day in author Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels – still among the best-selling novels of all time – and Raymond Burr’s classic portrayal of the hard-nosed lawyer is an icon of the a thousand television imitators who, for better or worse, simplified America’s understanding of the courtroom. In less than an hour, a lawyer backed by nothing but the truth could solve cases with confessions on the stand and mend the foundation of society “innocent until proven guilty.” Gardner’s creation turned cops and judges into corrupt jailers, valuing opportunism above all else. Instead, Gardner portrayed a fragile institution in which “the illusion of justice” is more important than reality.
It’s not Mason, though. “Truth is the most powerful weapon a man can use, and if you practice law as we do, it’s the only weapon powerful enough to use,” Mason says in The case of the baited hook. “A lawyer doing the things I did and relying on something less powerful than the truth would be disbarred in a month.”
These things are still apparent in the gritty, HBO-ified update from Perry Mason. There are, however, a few caveats. In the first season, creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald had to thread two needles. First, they introduced a new Perry Mason, dressed in a black detective costume and transformed into a traumatized war vet with a drinking problem. Second, the creators had to justify the format, throwing out a century of episodic procedurals in favor of a season-long mystery that Raymond Burr could solve in 52 minutes. Jones and Fitzgerald turned a case-of-the-week show into a high-profile character drama that was more Marlowe than Mason and required putting the usually hyper-confident and capable Mason on its heels. Now season two showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (The Knick) to do again.
Director Fernando Coimbra begins with an impressively long dolly shot through the Luxe gaming ship just before a waiter drops a molotov cocktail into a laundry basket filled with oily rags. These ships operated in mythical “international waters”, where the LAPD has no jurisdiction and ruthless tycoons could crush their competition without worry. The server was working at the request of Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), the adult son of local tycoon Lynell (Paul Raci). But, when Luxe’s explosion draws too much heat, his father orders Brooks to focus on his charity work, not his police-backed casino boats, and a half-hearted attempt to fill the empty ballpark in which he sank a fortune. Like the class of grown-up sons we live in today, Brooks never encountered a problem that he couldn’t make worse by trying to get out of it.
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Unfortunately for Brooks, Depression-era Americans weren’t convinced to become Angelenos, and the town’s low population didn’t signal much success for a Major League team. New York gets three teams because Los Angeles might as well be March for the rest of the country.
Even the Martians have problems. The last time we saw Perry Mason (still in the pocket Matthew Rhys), he removed Emily Dodson from the gallows and established his law firm. He even has an associate, the incomparable Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and a reliable investigator, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk). Yet he still drinks too much, scribbles motorcycles in his legal notebooks, and longs for the day when he can return to true justice. Since the first season, Perry has moved from criminal cases to civil law, but the focus has cost him his integrity. Working for a local grocery tycoon, Sunny Gryce (Sean Astin), Mason uses his famous cross-examination skills to bankrupt one of Gryce’s former employees, whom Gryce sued over the intellectual property that the employee developed, breaking the first invention assignment agreements. But, like Perry, the employee has his success used against him, and now Perry wields the law to crush the worker.
That’s not why Mason joined. Even though the “jury has decided this case,” Mason feels guilty, wondering aloud, “Who is to blame for what happens next?” Perry and Della are honored by DA Hamilton Burger (another fantastic Justin Kirk twist), who reminds Mason that despite his “sulky cynicism”, Mason still believes in justice, and that’s why he feels so depressed after having won his case with ease and impressive manner. Although Burger is more cynical than he lets on. He concedes that American justice has only to give the taxpayer “the illusion of justice”. Burger is paid to entertain the fantasy that “people believe the truth always prevails.” Burger said that to the wrong guy. Despite the “sulky cynicism,” embellished grittiness, and heavy drinking, Burger is right: Perry Mason believes in all that bullshit. He is not cynical but idealistic. “Who the hell wants to be part of this?” Mason asks as he pulls a glass of bourbon.
The HBO-ification of Perry Mason is not a bad thing. Of course, this means that in addition to being an all-around shitheel, Brooks is also in the choke game. Still, it gives Mason a reason to be so driven, vulnerable, and unpredictable. While the first episode contains a lot of shoe leather, it gets to where this version of Mason works best: backed into a corner. We get closer to Brooks being shot in his car on the beach. His plans have always been as stable as a sandcastle, and now our supposed seasonal big bad is at sea. The fake bad guy was a pleasant surprise in a somewhat ho-hum premiere. One thing is certain, however: whoever will be accused of the murder will need a good lawyer.
- Hi, I’m Matt Schimkowitz. I’m going to take you through 1930s Los Angeles this season, and we’re on a collision course with justice.
- The show’s blue and amber color palette is always rich and bounces off the exquisite sets and locations with a moody atmosphere. Few shows are as beautifully designed as Mason. This holds true in season two.
- Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are perfect for this show. If anything, this first episode is a great reminder to rewatch The Knick.
- It makes sense that the show would hope to fill out Della’s character and expand her relationship with Mabel, the hand model. However, this plot, so far, seems so detached from what’s going on in the business. As a result, it seems superficial, but who doesn’t want to see Rylance’s open-hearted Della Street find some romance? I’m willing to reserve judgment on this until we see more.
- While researching the casino boats that inspired the opening set piece, I found it fantastic Los Angeles Time article (complete with video) on the sinking of the SS Rexone of Santa Monica’s most infamous gambling barges.
- Title card corner: MasonThe title screen of is always memorable, and they nailed it with a very painterly shot of the falling Luxe. It looked fantastic, with the letters looping around Holcomb flipping his game chip. Mason give the fantastic watchmen chyrons a run for their money.