I felt that the first season of HBO’s “Perry Mason” strained to be dark and gritty, and I found the plot convoluted. The origin stories of the central characters were bland, and I didn’t see them come into focus until the very end. I also suffered from some distracting cynicism throughout over the use of the title “Perry Mason” for a series that barely resembles the original books and the Raymond Burr series.
The show, which returned on Monday night, has improved only slightly for season 2. Its veneer of prestige television still seems forced, as the doleful soundtrack and sophisticated period design mask a lurking sense of pointlessness. But it’s an easier viewing experience, still slow and shadowy but nonetheless more straightforward. And our leads — Perry (Matthew Rhys), Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) — have become more dimensional, as we follow them more closely into their current private lives.
The season-long case is tighter, even while it’s not quite rich enough to supply a charge to all eight episodes. Perry and Della have withdrawn from the messiness of criminal cases, now basing their practice on mind-numbingly boring civil cases. But just when they thought they were out, Perry and Della get pulled into a murder case, this one revolving around two Mexican brothers who’ve been accused of killing the wealthy white son of an oil magnate. Perry is certain that the brothers didn’t commit the crime, and that they are the victims of racism, particularly as the prosecutor leans heavily on racist dog whistles in the courtroom. Meanwhile, the new DA, Justin Kirk’s closeted Hamilton Burger, really wants his first big case to be a slam-dunk.
Whodunnit? There are a few options, including the oil magnate, a crooked detective, and another oil magnate played by Hope Davis in an entertainingly eccentric turn. But I never got caught up in the case enough to care much, especially since all the underwritten suspects are clearly baddies to some extent, and little more. The twists arrive, but they fail to bring any electricity to the story line. Meanwhile, to break up the case work, the writers follow Perry and Della into new romantic relationships, and they bring us into Paul’s marriage, all of which adds some warmth to the whole endeavor, if not the tension and intensity it truly needs.