Like so many great noirs before it, HBO’s “Perry Mason” reboot revels in American outsiders fighting to persevere despite being beaten into submission by the world around them. This Perry Mason isn’t an established defense attorney, but a private investigator who can barely hold onto his license. Della Street is an overworked and undervalued assistant, kept from self-made success only by her gender and forced into hiding by her choice of partner. Paul Drake is a Black beat cop whose authority only exists until a white officer shows up — sometimes, not even then.
Plenty more characters live in polite society’s shadow, but co-creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones take their time tying together the established elements of “Perry Mason” lore. Built with confidence, patience, and a voice calibrated for today’s audiences (if not the rapid pacing to match), HBO’s update may seem like a far cry from the stuffy CBS procedural that always offered a happy ending — but it’s better for it. No one needs another case-of-the-week legal drama that treats its defender like a private investigator, but plenty of people should savor seeing a real P.I. lead a rag-tag team of plucky rebels looking for justice.
Oh, and it’s also the most beautiful TV series I’ve seen since “The Knick.” One of the best I’ve ever seen. Really.
When we meet our latest Perry Mason (played with elastic, enamoring despondency by Matthew Rhys), he’s about as far from a proper courtroom as possible. Coming off a shady peeping tom case and desperate for a dollar, Fitzgerald and Jones shade Mason’s initial desolation with clever quips that double as reinforcement of the future lawyer’s current status. His “good suit” is a hobo’s hand-me-down. He goes shopping for clothes at the county morgue. At the end of a long, hard day, his first household chore is dragging a cow off the airfield that’s been built adjacent to his family farm. Watching Rhys barter for a dead man’s necktie and drag livestock through a field is delightful, even as it hammers home his character’s early issues: Perry is having a rough go of it, and worse yet, he’s accepted “rough” as his de facto lifestyle.
That is, until a jolting case knocks him for a loop. Shown in the series’ opening moments, a kidnapping gone wrong leaves an infant dead, desecrated, and his family in doubt. No one can figure out who wanted the money or why, so the finger starts to point at the parents, Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin). Their lawyer, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), employs Mason to get to the bottom of things, which leads him to a church with a cult following, their leader, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), and the officers assigned who should’ve been talking to her, but aren’t.
Merrick Morton / HBO
For anyone looking for catharsis in their TV viewing, “Perry Mason” isn’t shy about presenting cops as the bad guys (long a staple of the genre). Early on, when Mason asks his client why they didn’t go to the police, it’s a trick question, easily recognized: “I wouldn’t trust the Los Angeles Police Department to do the job that’s needed,” the client says. “Neither would I,” Mason replies, and bang — he takes the case for the same reason you set your DVR to record all eight episodes. This new “Mason” may still revolve around a straight white man, but it’s attentive and inclusive to an array of perspectives; corruption in the LAPD is explored through a Black officer coming to terms with his place in such a unit, which offers much more complicated questions of identity than a white investigator getting his camera busted or belly kicked. It would be hard to watch even half the season and not feel like Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) could carry the show (and if you get to the end, it’s clear their roles will only expand in future seasons).
If anything, this first season is more setup than payoff, though I’d argue it’s necessary to establish the aims of this series vs. past iterations of “Perry Mason.” The case itself is a little thin and stretched over too many episodes; the Maslany-led B-plot regarding the church also struggles to merit its considerable screen time (as does Maslany, who wisely doesn’t try to overdo her more dramatic scenes, but is still too passive a character to shoulder so much); the series’ women deserve more interiority overall, though, again, the show is primed to improve next year. “Perry Mason” is an exquisitely rendered crime noir made for people who appreciate the genre — or simply people who appreciate thoughtful, detailed, and purposeful storytelling in general.
But let’s dig into the look of this show, which is second to none. The pair of directors responsible for these first eight episodes just so happen to perfectly mirror the series’ dual nature. Tim Van Patten, who directs the first half of Season 1, is Emmy, HBO, and TV royalty; first nominated for his work on “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” Van Patten cemented his legacy by helping to shape “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Pacific” — and it’s easy to see how both projects made him a good fit for “Perry Mason.” One can see “The Pacific” in Episode 2’s war flashbacks (Perry is a veteran), though these battle scenes remain as distinct as the rest of the show. While only a decade separates the two series’ Depression-era settings, Patten’s latest is set on the opposite coast — and it shows. 1930s Los Angeles offers more sunshine, space, and an elegance befitting the Hollywood studios nearby. The costumes (by Emma Potter) aren’t as flamboyant as those worn by New Jersey mobsters, and the impeccable lighting choices create an ambiance akin to the best black-and-white noirs, only in color. (The shadows, the key lights, the night shoots, my god.)
Merrick Morton / HBO
If Van Patten is the veteran representing “Perry Mason’s” Old Hollywood roots, than Deniz Gamze Ergüven is the new-age breakout, both benefitting from the choices of her predecessor and finding new angles all her own in the season’s latter half. Anyone familiar with Ergüven’s 2015 film “Mustang” or 2018 episodes of “The First” will recognize the raw nature of her evoked performance, as well as a savvy, stylized expression of imagination fading into reality. Some of the most vital shots and iconic, Perry Mason moments fall to her, and Ergüven doesn’t disappoint. (Nor does Emmy-winning director of photography David Franco.)
Their work comes together as seamlessly as their collective vision, and “Perry Mason” stands as an astounding visual feat for its specific framings as well as its overall world-building. There are striking images of a pitch-black profile and lavish outdoor shots of real Los Angeles locations. In some shows, intimate conversations between two people can clash with the grander scenes, making anything indoors (likely shot on a set) feel cut off from the rest of the series. With credit to production designer John Goldsmith, “Mason” has the intuition (and the budget) to not just balance visual opulence with smaller, private moments, but to blend them — there’s a scene where Perry and Della split a bottle of booze, and rather than put them against a fixed backdrop, they’re in front of two windows on an upper floor. Cars pass by, shining light through the windows, and people can be seen walking on the street outside. The larger world never leaves, and “Perry Mason” feels all the more grounded because of it.
“Perry Mason” may end up being punished not for what it is, but for what it isn’t. Fans of the CBS series may feel the new iteration takes too many liberties with the man they remember, while a younger audience may be too impatient for a slow-burn thriller built on imagery and language rather than an onslaught of melodrama. But from the pilot to the final episode, “Perry Mason” knows itself: This Perry Mason is a rebel, and he’s bringing everyone along for the ride.
“Perry Mason” premieres Sunday, June 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.