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Amid a Rising Tide of Reboots, ‘Perry Mason’ Season 2 Raises the Bar

Matthew Rhys returns for a second season of the HBO adaptation that subtly improves on its strong initial outing.

Perry Mason Season 2 Matthew Rhys HBO

Matthew Rhys in “Perry Mason”

Courtesy of Merrick Morton / HBO

We are living in the Golden Age of Television… I.P. Whether it’s NBC rebooting “Night Court” or Netflix reliving “That 90’s Show,” intellectual property is the name of the game. Heck, “The Lord of the Rings” can’t even finish one reboot before the next comes along. Viewers are so inundated with old ideas rehashed into something new, they may not even notice how thoroughly I.P. has infiltrated their entertainment. Marvel comics were adapted into Marvel movies, which were extended into Marvel TV shows, which were then connected back to Marvel movies, which, by then, were incorporating old Marvel actors right alongside new Marvel actors — both playing the same role. I’m not even sure that winding, snakelike sentence holds together, but the point remains: We’re hearing the same stories about the same people over and over and over again. Hollywood has found a way to turn ouroboros into pure profit.

But you know what? Sometimes it works. Nearly three years ago, HBO dove head-first into the murky waters of I.P. with “Perry Mason,” a dark-and-gritty reboot of a character best known from a 1960s CBS procedural. As one can imagine, the Perry of old would never investigate anything as grisly as a dead toddler, nor did Raymond Burr ever enact a scene where Perry fucks so hard he falls off the bed. (Apologies for the coarse language and for putting that image in your head.) And yet, the debut season of “Perry Mason” was not only a thrilling deconstruction of TV courtroom dramas, but one of the most beautiful series ever filmed. It soared in spite of its dubious building blocks, and set up future episodes to play to the new series’ established strengths (the sterling cast, the eye-popping era of 1930s Los Angeles, and the weighty judicial subject matter).

Not everyone thought so, of course, and “Perry Mason” Season 2 returns with a few tweaks. Original showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald are out, replaced by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who previously co-led “The Knick.” The one-two directing duo of Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Ergüven have moved on, with a team including Fernando Coimbra (“Narcos”), Jessica Lowrey (“Briarpatch”), and Nina Lopez-Corrado (“The Nevers”) stepping in nicely. Onscreen, the case is better suited to fill the season (not to mention far less grisly), and the associated character arcs are more cleanly delineated. With the origin story out of the way, Season 2 leans on its trio of leads — Perry (Matthew Rhys), Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) — and digs into how Perry’s new profession (he transitioned from private investigator to defense attorney in Season 1) both suits him and doesn’t.

Most importantly, it still rips — Season 2 is an elegant, arresting noir that’s hard to shake and sly enough to savor. Part of this adaptation’s appeal is how it balances the past and the present. Its setting, pacing, and style all evoke alluring aspects of yesteryear, while its serialized elements and overall honesty — in its portrayal of people’s lives, in its view of a deeply flawed institution, and in how the former is twisted into knots by the latter — speaks to modern audience’s sensibilities. It’s not a case-of-the-week anymore, but one case per season; it’s not going to wrap everything up in an hour, or in a nice little bow, because that’s not realistic, but it is going to choose cases with purpose, that elicit compelling questions about America’s court system, and provide what answers it can by season’s end.

Plus, Matthew Rhys is here, and wherever Matthew Rhys goes, people should follow.

Befitting our fledgling attorney, Season 2’s case forces Perry to better understand his role in the government’s judicial branch. “As long as people still believe in justice and there’s a system in place that looks like it works, I’m doing what the city pays me to do,” Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), the friendly district attorney, tells an infuriated Perry: “Who the fuck wants to be any part of that?” Perry says, storming out in a huff.

Well, you do, Perry. It’s part of the job, even when it’s hard to see why. The former private dick got into the profession hoping to protect the innocent, only to find himself bankrupting an independent businessman instead. Only a year in, Perry already feels the old rebel tug to move fast and break things, rather than learn the game and play it to his favor. Luckily, Della is there to check his angry-man urges, a consummate professional who’s cracked enough books to remind Perry of the rules. Along with Paul — an ex-cop now working as the firm’s private detective — they’re a young team, but a talented one.

Perry Mason Season 2 HBO Matthew Rhys Chris Chalk Juliet Rylance

“Perry Mason”

Courtesy of Merrick Morton / HBO

Both qualities prove to be attributes when they’re asked to defend two Mexican brothers accused of shooting the wealthy son of a wealthier oil magnate. Given how quickly the notoriously corrupt LAPD identifies and arrests the young immigrants, Perry & Co. are suspicious right off the bat, and Amiel and Begler’s scripts smartly acknowledge and usurp one assumption after the next. Tommy Dewey (“Casual”) makes for an ideal nepo baby/victim, toeing the line between oblivious patsy and vindictive daddy’s boy, while Paul Raci (fresh off an Oscar nomination for “Sound of Metal”) is sinister from the start, yet concealing more than just dark secrets. Returning favorites are dialed in — especially the incomparable Shea Whigham and a sharply subdued Kirk — while new additions in Katherine Waterston (as Perry’s son’s school teacher) and Hope Davis (as a curious woman of wealth) bolster an already solid ensemble.

Still, it’s Rhys that’s undeniable. The Welsh star made famous for bringing unmatched magnetism to so many mournful men is more irked than inconsolable this season. Rhys has a marked screen presence; the aura of a man your eyes would follow around the room, even if he wasn’t centered by a camera frame. But he does the work to create that quality, rather than being big enough to command it without trying. I can’t shake a scene from the fourth episode where Perry just… walks to a window. That’s it. He gets some tough news, lets out a sigh, and turns away from the camera to process his next steps. Rhys reacts slowly, allowing Perry to recognize what the information means for his case, but he’s not overacting — this isn’t a performance that begs you to admire all the choices being made, so much that it’s innately lived in and layered to invite the viewer’s natural curiosity. As Perry untangles the moral and professional responsibilities tied to his knotty new profession, Rhys finds just the right inflection to distinguish the cub attorney’s edification. And it’s riveting.

From the outside looking in, “Perry Mason” has the earmarks of a series on the ropes. Season 2 airs Mondays instead of Sundays and faces an uphill climb to reach the critical acclaim expected of an HBO original. It debuted to strong ratings, but three years later, it’s hard to tell how many of those curious viewers are excited to return. If it is the end of the road, Hollywood doesn’t tend to reward what it perceives as failures, but I would urge executives, producers, and writers to pay heed to how this adaptation was approached. There’s clear respect for the character’s origins as well as today’s audiences; there’s obvious affection for the genre, the world, and the stories themselves; there’s a point to the I.P. beyond the business plan. The world may not have been ready for another “Perry Mason,” but if the snake is going to keep eating its own tail, let’s at least hope it tastes like this.

Grade: B+

“Perry Mason” Season 2 premieres Monday, March 6 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and will be available to stream via HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.

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