HBO’s “Perry Mason” shares a title with its TV series predecessor — and that’s where all similarities end.
This new eight-episode drama, with Matthew Rhys in the title role, deviates sharply from the CBS series (1957-66) starring Raymond Burr as the brilliant, no-nonsense Eisenhower-era LA defense attorney who, with his penetrating stare and rising-crescendo cross-examinations, coerced on-the-stand confessions from the “real killers” in virtually every episode, much to the chagrin of DA Hamilton Burger (William Talman). Perry’s inner circle consisted of two people: his loyal secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale) and wolfish private-eye pal Paul Drake (William Hopper). Viewers knew nothing about Perry’s past and even less about his private life, save for a few scenes in his apartment early in the series’ run.
That all changes with HBO’s “Perry Mason,” premiering June 21 at 9 p.m. with co-stars Juliet Rylance, John Lithgow, Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”), Robert Patrick and Stephen Root. This version hews more closely, at least chronologically, to Erle Stanley Gardner’s ’30s-era “Perry Mason” books and is set in 1932 LA. When we first meet Perry he’s an unshaven, unkempt, private detective in a stained, ratty suit who drops F-bombs while eking out a living spying on errant movie stars (echoes of scandal-scarred Fatty Arbuckle) and cheating husbands, etc. with his sometimes partner, Pete (Shea Whigham).
“You get no pleasure out of life,” Pete tells Perry, who fires off an occasional wisecrack to ease the tension.
Haunted by his wartime experience in France — and by his broken marriage, which produced a son — Perry lives on his family’s rundown dairy farm, where he takes occasional solace in the arms of Lupe (Veronica Falcon), a pilot who works at the adjacent airstrip. He’s not averse to hitting the bottle or flouting the rules, at least when it comes to his investigative work. He may seem morally ambiguous at times, but he’s a decent man who’s fighting his inner demons and trying to make sense of it all.
The series narrative is (literally) spun on a thread when Perry’s sometimes employer, attorney EB Jonathan (Lithgow) — who relies heavily on his secretary Della Street (Rylance) — draws him into a sensational child murder case, a ransom kidnapping gone horribly awry leaving a dead infant and two distraught parents. As the case unwinds, we see its tentacles reach into all corners of LA society — including politicians, a megachurch run by radio evangelist Sister Alice (Maslany) and the city’s sketchy, vice-ridden police department with an honest cop, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) who knows something is awry.
Rhys, who won an Emmy as torn Russian spy Philip Jennings in “The Americans” — by turns doting father and calculating, cold-blooded killer — mines similar emotional territory as Perry. He never turns into a caricature of the angst-ridden dime-novel detective and projects a hard-bitten subtlety and dour demeanor that blends well with the tone and feel of 1930s LA — caught here in all its off-putting seediness and Hollywood glamour. The writing and directing is top-notch with nary a dull moment, the supporting cast is strong without exception and viewers will be intrigued — both by “Perry Mason’s” colorful cast of characters and by the murder mystery that will re-shape Perry’s life and career.
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