A ‘Perry Mason’ mystery of another sort

A reader (and watcher) wants to know: Why is Matthew Rhys Perry Mason when he acts more like Sam Spade?

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason in HBO's new miniseries of the same name.
Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason in HBO's new miniseries of the same name.Merrick Morton/HBO

Q. So I watched the first episode of HBO’s “Perry Mason” with Matthew Rhys and I don’t understand. Why is he Perry Mason when he acts more like Sam Spade?


A. That’s a funny question, because it rings so true. It’s like creating a new Spider-Man series, but making the hero a mosquito-man. At least for the first episodes of the new series, Perry Mason isn’t even a lawyer. He’s a broke and broken tabloid P.I. who drinks too much as he crawls through a very noirish 1930s LA.

Really, he could have been just some brand new character, maybe a P.I. named Jerry Nason, but, you know, that would be original and risky, two no-no qualities in the entertainment business. The powers that be would rather shoehorn the story of this gumshoe guy into the famous franchise title that rings bells all across the country. The CW did that with the Archie Comics characters, turning the gang into a darkly complex group of teens on “Riverdale” whose only resemblance to the comic-book characters is their hair color.

The lure of intellectual property has only grown since the advent of streaming services and their many, many shows. For one thing, a proven story concept appeals to TV outlets as they try to satisfy the massive need for new content. The logic goes like this: If “Hawaii Five-0” was a solid enough idea to run from 1968 to 1980, CBS must have thought back in 2010 when it rebooted the drama, then the idea may still have some life in it (it did, 10 years worth).


Also, and more on point regarding the question, as some 500 new shows per year come flying at overwhelmed viewers, familiar names like “Perry Mason” – along with the likes of “Dynasty” and “The Twilight Zone” – stand out from the crowd. The titles call to viewers who are aware of the originals, either because they watched them or because they’ve simply heard the title before. Will those familiar with a title definitely watch the reboot of it? Not necessarily; TV is littered with failed reboots. But still, brand awareness is half the battle.


Authors and podcasters are also benefiting from the TV business’s desire for projects with built-in potential audiences. You’ve read the book! Now watch the show! Even if the story has been entirely changed!


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.