This is not your Grandpa’s Perry Mason. The original TV series with Raymond Burr and Barbra Hale ran from 1957 until 1966, and seemed to live eternally on TV in afternoon syndication. It was one of my favorite shows, with the clever lawyer (Burr) inevitably getting confessions on the stand, it made the legal profession look dangerous and glamorous.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Perry Mason was the creation of one of America's most popular novelists, Erle Stanley Gardner, born in Malden, Massachusetts and who went to Valparaiso Law in Indiana (the university where Adrienne’s father once taught). The stories were among the most popular ever published in the U.S.
Which brings us to HBO’s reworking of Perry Mason. Set in post-depression Los Angeles, Perry is a hard-luck private detective shaken by his experiences in World War I and newly divorced. He never sees his young son. Perry is played by Matthew Rhys, a Welsh actor last seen in The Americans. The show is set in 1932 with Perry working for lawyer E.B Jonathan (masterfully played by national treasure John Lithgow).
This is essentially an origin story, as when Perry starts the eight-episode run he is not even a lawyer yet. The acting on this show is beyond excellent, with Juliet Rylance as Della Street, first E.B.’s assistant then Perry’s. The twist with Della is that she is a lesbian in a very uncompromising time, same with the wonderful gay Hamilton Berger, then the assistant District Attorney, played by Justin Kirk, who will save Perry with his legal advice. Shea Whigham plays the very salty Pete Strickland, Perry’s detective partner, Chris Chalk is outstanding as Paul Drake, a black LAPD cop who is subject to unending racism by his own force.
Of course Stephen Root is Maynard Barnes, the LA district attorney who is gunning for a mayor position. The scenes with Root and Lithgow in court are second to none. The show stealer, however, is Tatiana Maisany as Sister Alice McKeegan of the Radiant Assembly of God, a thinly veiled version of Aimee Semple McPherson, whose Foursquare church used stage techniques, costumes, and the new technology of the times, radio. Like Aimee, Sister Alice’s Radiant Assembly of God Church deploys faith healing and speaking in tongues on adherents; the services are intense and frightening.
Along with the exceptional acting, this very noirish series uses the old locations throughout Los Angeles to great effect. It is beautifully shot and wonderful to look at.
I won’t give away the plot, but there is a heinous murder of a baby, and the twisted, turning story runs on this. E.B and then Perry try to save the child's innocent mother amid intrigue. In the course of the show, Perry becomes a lawyer and this death penalty case is his first. Of course the LAPD is involved, and not in a good way, as well as the Radiant Assembly. Sister Alice promises a resurrection!
This show, quickly renewed for a second season, was for me absolute must-see television. Matthew Rhys was amazing as Perry. I devoured every second of this show, the acting, the plot, the subplots, the sets, the look of the show, the cars, the music all perfect. The gritty resurrection of the Perry Mason character is the real miracle here.