The first episode of HBO’s take on the iconic Perry Mason begins with a gut punch. A married couple has their infant son held for ransom, and it gets worse from there. This isn’t the light legal drama that the 1950s show, starring Raymond Burr, settled into; this is a very dark affair. The new Perry Mason, played by Matthew Rhys, is unlike any incarnation of the character thus far – he’s gruff, weary, downtrodden, and a bit aimless. This Perry Mason also has sex – not very good sex, but sex nonetheless.
This is not the distinguished attorney we’re familiar with. Instead of tackling serious issues, this Perry is a private investigator in Los Angeles, resigned to taking sleazy photos of Hollywood stars to help pay his bills (seeing a naked man eat pumpkin pie off a woman’s body will go down as one of television’s most scarring moments of the year). He lives on his parents’ (now deceased) old farm and seems to spend his days drinking, worrying about his bills, and refusing to look anything but disheveled.
But the mystery kicks into high gear when Perry gets a visit from E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). A lawyer, and former acquaintance of Perry’s parents, Jonathan urges Mason to clean his life up. He also encourages Perry to take on a complex case involving a kidnapping, a murdered child, and thousands of dollars in cash. Every character in the show seems to agree the LAPD is too corrupt to be trusted to solve this, prompting Perry’s call to action.
Once on the case, Perry is at least competent at his job. But even he can’t seem to piece together the inconsistencies in the parents’ story. Making matters worse is when Perry has to view the body of the deceased child, drawing on his emotions as a father. Perry and his ex-wife are estranged, with the mother maintaining primary custody. This, we can clearly see, is the primary fuel behind Perry’s depression and alcoholism. But it does feel a bit forced at times, culminating in an angry phone conversation Perry has with the mother.
The drunk, unhappy Perry Mason is exactly the route I would expect the showrunners (Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald) to go. Unfortunately, thus far, the show hasn’t made us feel empathetic towards him. Yes, he has disagreements with the mother of his child, but there’s no context provided for their arguments. So, we don’t know if Perry is being an asshole or if we can sympathize with his dilemma. Hopefully future episodes will flesh this out.
Perry does seem to have one functioning relationship, that with a pilot named Lupe (Verónica Falcón). She’s the one who Perry has a lot of uncomfortable sex with, and who wisely tells him it’s not a good idea to call your ex when you’re drunk on New Year’s Eve. How their relationship will unfold will be interesting to see, especially since Perry’s outburst in episode 1 is likely not the last time we will see him at his lowest.
But the family drama is not the only thing plaguing Perry. In a brilliant meta-reversal, we see Perry getting interrrogated as a material witness to an unrelated case. It’s revealed, during this exchange, that Perry received a blue discharge from the military, calling into question what he did to earn this infraction.
Clearly, in this new characterization of Mason, the goal is to make him human and extremely flawed before building him into the hero we know. But it’s easy to give a character flaws, while it’s much harder to make their ascent to triumph feel earned and cathartic. That’s the task in front of this season. I don’t feel that everything works so far, namely the attempts to build sympathy for the title character.
But what does work is that the mystery feels genuinely intriguing, the acting is strong, and the show’s visuals are fantastic. The entire production is well-shot, looking cinematic rather than like a normal TV show. In addition, this is just the first episode, and most pilot episodes aren’t going to be all-time classics. But, hopefully the honeymoon period will be over soon. Episode 1 ends with Perry noticing what he thinks is a breakthrough in the case, one of which we the audience have to wait to understand the significance of. This will hopefully segue into the show’s own breakthrough into greatness. We’ve set the groundwork for what Perry Mason can be in 2020; it’s time to take flight.