Captivating, exceptional new TV show
For the first few episodes of HBO's gritty, captivating and exceptionally crafted Perry Mason reboot, there's a question hanging in the air.
Why is this a Perry Mason reboot at all? Why isn't it just the story of another character entirely or even the next instalment of anthology series True Detective?
The 2020 revival of Erle Stanley Gardner's criminal defence lawyer couldn't be more different to the character's most famous screen version, the unflappable and respected lawyer played by Raymond Burr in 270 episodes in the classic 1950s TV series.
But as the miniseries, starting tonight on Foxtel*, goes on, exploring corruption and law over its eight-episode run, it's clear that this version and its precedents have something in common, a deep commitment to justice.
Played with nuance and vulnerability by Emmy-winning Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (The Americans, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood), the Perry Mason we meet in 1932 is far from the confident lawyer he would become.
Still haunted by the memories of trenches in World War I, estranged from his wife and young son and desperately trying to hold onto his parents' Van Nuys dairy farm, Mason is a two-bit private investigator hired to take compromising shots of washed-up actors such as Chubby Carmichael (an obvious nod to Fatty Arbuckle).
But when a kidnap-for-ransom plot results in a dead baby left on the Angels Flight funicular for his distraught mother to find, Mason is drawn into the complex case involving film noir's thematic favourites: power, money and corruption.
Hired by the dead family's lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), Mason is working with E.B.'s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and fellow investigator Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) to clear the mother Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), who is charged by ambitious District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) with conspiring to kidnap her own child.
Elsewhere, evangelical preacher Sister Alice (Orphan Black Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany) is enthralling Christians in her congregation and across the country on radio with her firebrand sermons delivering solace to a population emotionally and economically devastated by the Great Depression, while simultaneously asking them to generously donate to the church.
The character is based on the real-life Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who also inspired a similar character currently on screen in the not very good Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
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While the case of the dead Dodson baby is the central device propelling the narrative, the satisfaction of Perry Mason is not the whodunit (or even, who-didn't-do-it), its soul is the detailed, intricate 1932 Los Angeles it created.
The crime and its aftermath are merely lenses through which to examine all these aspects of a patriarchal system that serves to reward those who exploit it and punish those without any traditional power, such as Emily, who is an easy scapegoat for men to point their fingers and cry to the papers about why she's a "bad" mother and wife.
Mason and his compatriots are outsiders and that's why they can see - and through them, the audience - all the ways in which these institutions of law enforcement, the church and the city are decrepit, broken and anathema to justice and fairness.
At first, Perry Mason's commentary is grim, bordering on nihilistic, and it is a slow-burn, but by the end of its story, it will offer glimmers of hope and faith that there is redemption.
It's the exception that a mystery series will feature characters that are not central to the crime, not even as red herrings. Rather, there are characters here, including aviatrix Lupe (Veronica Falcon), based on real-life pioneering pilot Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes, who just live in this world, adding to its layers.
It speaks to Perry Mason's commitment to not just deliver a crime and an investigation, but a fully realised world with different neighbourhoods and different people - more so than films of the actual era in which it plays.
And with that HBO money behind it, Perry Mason looks spectacular with wonderful production design by John P. Goldsmith and art direction by Chris Farmer transporting you to the era.
Tim Van Patten, a well-regarded TV director who's worked on Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos and The Wire, helms five of the eight episodes with Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Erguven (Mustang) taking on the rest.
Van Patten establishes an aesthetic that touches on noir but doesn't go the full tilt of long shadows and off-kilter framing while still hitting on the contrast between the full Californian sun and the dark, grimy backstreets where so much of life is lived.
The revamping of Perry Mason's three core characters - Mason, Della and Paul - as outsiders may be seen as a 2020 twist to appeal to modern audiences, but it's a prudent one, as it's more interesting storytelling than another case-of-the-week procedural where homogenous heroes have no backstory or personal motivations to discern.
Rhys, an expressive actor who has no hesitation in letting his characters appear weak and flawed (and Mason sure gets beaten up a lot), is a marvellous choice for the role.
He's entrancing as this character who starts off in a very different emotional place to where we know he's heading, and his arc is superbly, even subtly written to the point you barely even notice it until it's already happened.
The role was originally meant for Robert Downey Jr when a Perry Mason reboot was first mooted as a feature, and while Downey Jr remains an executive producer, it's hard to imagine that the Marvel star's snarky energy would've brought to the role.
Rhys balances Mason's cynicism and irreverence with an earnestness that makes his iteration someone relatable and admirable, despite his failings.
Perry Mason doesn't have all the answers, it can't solve institutional corruption or the rotting souls of execrable men, but for TV audiences who love to marinate in an exquisitely rendered, shades-of-grey world, and don't mind whole episodes where not a lot "happens", this is a sophisticated, engrossing series.
Perry Mason starts on Monday, June 22 at 8.30pm on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now
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*Foxtel is majority owned by News Corp, publisher of news.com.au
Originally published as Captivating, exceptional new TV show