The new HBO version of “Perry Mason” is, as you might expect, an effort to add cable-era complexity, darkness, and grit to an old network-identified brand, which originated in the fiction of Erle Stanley Gardner. They’re gussying up a dated property by giving it scars, bruises, angst, and desperation; welcome to TV’s Golden Age.
The new series doesn’t exactly turn Mason — played by Matthew Rhys, who has morally-twisted-hero cred from his years on “The Americans” — into another Tony Soprano, but the HBO-styled Mason drinks too much, has PTSD from his World War I service, has had an ugly divorce, is distant from his preteen son, and at the start of the early-1930s-set series, works as a low-rent P.I. taking photos used to blackmail famous people. He’s far from the black-and-white icon of justice that Raymond Burr played on CBS for decades; he’s a lost soul in a tattered tie and jacket trying to put himself on the right path.
It’s not a bad idea to invent a Perry Mason backstory that charts his journey to the bench; Gardner left his defense lawyer without one. Superheroes get origin stories that explain their deepest motives; why not give one to a legal superhero, a wizard in the courtroom who — and this part of the story is timely — never buys into the official police version of events? Why not revise and deepen a well-known but flat character whose influence on the TV crime genre remains strong? It’s not a bad idea, but it doesn’t entirely work in “Perry Mason,” which is both engaging in its acting and period setting and frustrating in its story and pacing. Yup, it’s a classic mixed bag, a show that manages to be both a textured noir and a flat “Dick Tracy”-like cartoon whose villains are defined by only one characteristic.
The season, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., revolves around the crime that helps Perry find his way out of the gutter. An infant named Charlie Dodson is kidnapped for a $100,000 ransom, but the plan goes wrong and the baby dies. (In the name of this being a gritty reboot, we see the dead baby, his eyes sewn open to appear alive.) Now his parents Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) are under suspicion, and defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) and his assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance) take on Emily’s case. E.B. hires Perry — who lives on his late parents’ crumbling farm in the San Fernando Valley — to dig up the truth, which leads to a church that’s led by a radio evangelist named Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and that’s attended by some of LA‘s wealthiest.
One of the problems with the show is that Perry goes from gumshoe screw-up to lawyer to master of the courtroom nearly overnight. Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald are purportedly showing us a man’s profound transformation, but there’s mostly only a before and an after. Rhys brings a lot to the character, as usual, but he is trapped, to some extent, by this gap, this uncharted emotional progress. I always like watching Rhys, but I wasn’t always sure the Perry he plays in one scene is fully connected to the Perry he plays in another scene. Until the end of the eight-episode season, when Perry and his team gel into a united front ready to turn trials upside-down, his evolution seems hazy. In that way, the season feels like a long setup, a stretched out pilot episode to establish who’s who; at the very end, I was ready to start the show.
Another problem: the Dodson case. Yes, we get it, the kidnapping is connected to the local power structure, and it will reach into all parts of LA. But it unfolds messily, leaving some of the key links nebulous. The church stuff often feels crammed in for effect, so we can see some overly choreographed, over-the-top scenes of worship turned to frenzy as Sister Alice preaches. Not that it wasn’t fun to watch Maslany speak in tongues as the camera frames her perfectly, but it’s an unnecessary and one-dimensional piece of the puzzle. Lili Taylor, as Sister Alice’s mother, Birdy, is the stereotype of the controlling parent.
A few of the tweaks to the original series work nicely. In the new version, Paul Drake, Perry’s right-hand man, is a Black cop. Paul faces racism with every step he takes, and being a cop who knows how to code switch does not help him. Played by Chris Chalk, he brings an important element to the show’s general sense of suspicion about law enforcement. Also, Della — played with great wise eyes by Rylance — is a lesbian in a relationship with a woman at her boarding house, an alteration that fits in naturally. Occasionally, Della makes points that seem too contemporary for her, just as some of the characters at times use language and tones that don’t belong in the 1930s; but overall, Della is a plus. So is another LGBT character who’s in the closet.
I don’t think you’ll be bored or outraged watching “Perry Mason.” The cast is filled with big, broad scene-stealers, with Lithgow’s moving turn at the top of that list. Stephen Root as an ambitious prosecutor, Rankin as the naïve Emily, Jefferson Mays as a quirky medical examiner — they provide enough moments, along with the leads, to enjoy. Just don’t get too caught up in trying to tie all those moments together.
Starring: Matthew Rhys, John Lithgow, Tatiana Maslany, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Nate Corddry, Jefferson Mays, Lili Taylor, Veronica Falcon, Gayle Rankin, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root
On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.