Perry Mason review: Classic noir style for a wildly new hero

Perry Mason. Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO
Perry Mason. Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO /

HBO’s Perry Mason keeps the film noir style but overhauls the character.

If you’re a fan of the Perry Mason TV series that starred Raymond Burr, you won’t recognize much in HBO‘s Perry Mason miniseries. But if you’re a film noir fan, someone who loves paging through pulpy detective novels, it’ll still be right up your alley.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains discussion of the Perry Mason series premiere, “Chapter One.” The episode is available now on HBO and HBO MAX.

The year is 1931—decades before the CBS series—and when we first meet Perry, he’s a disaffected private investigator who’s bored by looking into a movie star’s debauchery. But it’s the work that keeps the lights on, barely, at his struggling family farm.

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Then his mentor E.B. Jonathan (a great John Lithgow) appears offering a gig working for one of the city’s richest men. Perry is in no position to decline.

He is the classic hard-luck hero: drunk and desperate, not giving a damn about much since his ex-wife left and took their son—or maybe she left because he’s checked out emotionally.

You get that sense as he’s not a great guy, or even that smart at times. He makes the mistake of trying to blackmail high-powered Hollywood execs, and engages in an awkward fling with his neighbor Lupe (Veronica Falcón, Queen of the South); a passionless sex scene between them goes on far too long. This is a Perry Mason who is still rough around the edges and hasn’t learned any better yet.

But that works in a series that strongly utilizes everything that audiences would expect in a period detective drama. There’s the moody exterior shots, the jazz score, the fedoras, the angsty close-ups and slow-burning cigarettes. In one scene, Ennis (Andrew Howard of Watchmen) uses language that is racially insensitive, but back then, it was just part of the vernacular. Everything about this series painstakingly evokes rough and tumble 1930’s Los Angeles.

It feels like a great detective novel come to life—including the premiere episode’s slow pace, which might be a turn-off to some viewers used to faster shows. Perry Mason takes its time with every scene, and the first hour is more about Perry’s problems than his new case. But that’s the kind of setup you’d find in a mystery novel, and the actors make it worth your time.

Rhys, who spent years playing a conflicted hero on The Americans, makes a wonderful version of Perry. He portrays the character’s many flaws without making the audience dislike him, and is able to nail the dry humor. His only weakness is that since Perry is initially so detached from everything around him, it takes till near the end of the first episode before we truly see him come alive. He’s got a lot more to give, and hopefully later installments will capitalize on that.

The cast is the best thing that the series has going for it. Lithgow’s even keel is a fine complement to Rhys, and Agent Carter fans will no doubt have some flashbacks watching Shea Whigham as Perry’s sidekick Pete Strickland. Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) doesn’t make her grand entrance right away, but she’s a delight, while Robert Patrick (The Unit) is solid in his recurring role as Perry’s new employer.

And blink and you’ll miss him, but 12 Monkeys star Aaron Stanford pops up here, too. In this show, everyone’s chewing the scenery.

“So many windmills, so little time,” Della Street (Juliet Rylance) says to Perry in her first scene. That sums up the show perfectly—this Perry Mason is a Depression-era Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. He wouldn’t last a minute in a courtroom with his predecessor, but he’s fascinating in his own way, and this is the best film noir television has seen in a long while.

Next. Why Matthew Rhys shines in Perry Mason. dark

Perry Mason airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and is also available on HBO MAX.