HBO’S Perry Mason

It’s the Stubble, Stupid!

The private eye in the show goes wah-wah-wah…

After wading through the sordid wallow that was HBO’s PERRY MASON, my first urge was to dig up some of my tattered paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner, or stream a few episodes of the old TV show starring Raymond Burr. I might even dig up some of the flicks from the thirties starring Warren Williams, or try to find a few of episodes the short-lived “nice try” 1970s TV remake starring Monte Markam.

Almost any version of Mason would do–anything to see Mason, perhaps the world’s most beloved lawyer for a couple of generations, not treated with so much cynical contempt, or painted with so much clueless pretension.

Yes, yes, the show is beautifully shot, and the art direction (by Chris Farmer and Robert W. Joseph?) and all the period props are breathtaking (both accurate and believable), and the acting is generally top notch. I know.

But it frequently has very little to do with anything Gardner wrote.

Set in 1930s Los Angeles, HBO decided to focus on Perry BEFORE he became a hot-shot criminal lawyer, when he was–get this–a hardluck private eye (I admit my ears perked up at that), recently divorced and struggling to hold on to the family farm. The family farm? WTF?

This show was originally going to star Robert Downey Jr., who may have envisioned a more traditional approach (with him playing the charming and cocky attorney to the hilt), but he bailed to be Iron Man (although he remained executive producer). The project was then handed off to be written and produced by Nic Pizzolatto. Possibly it was Pizzolatto who darkened up things–after all, True Detective was his baby. But he jumped ship too, to work on the third season of True Detective. Which left the project in the allegedly capable hands of showrunners Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones.

Now, I can abide a little creative tweaking (I like Robert Altman’s take on The Long Goodbye, for example), and to be fair, some of the new characters created here are excellent; some of the plot twists quite clever.

What turned my wife off—and irritated the hell out of me—is the forced faux-noir trappings that covered almost every iota of this mess. Does everything have to be spritzed with pain and suffering? That’s not “noir”—that’s a pity party; based on the dubious assumption that if it’s squalid or depressing or squirm-inducing enough, it must be significant. I’m sure 14-year olds of all ages will lap it up. That dead baby shot in episode one is a winner!

Yeah, right.

The HBO hype machine encouraged comparisons to Chinatown, but here’s a scoop, boys: Chinatown wasn’t a bloated, turgid, light-sucking dirge that took eight hours to tell. There was movement and grace and vividly drawn characters who didn’t need twenty minutes of exposition to make them interesting. These people had lives. They laughed, they cried, they screwed up. They lived. And most of them ended up screwed, one way or another.

Nor was I particularly impressed with the writers’ creative tweaking. Like, Della’s a lesbian? Whoop-tee-doo! I don’t mind, but I don’t care, either. It’s not pertinent to who she is, or to the story being told. And it sure pisses all over the relationship that traditionally existed between Perry and Della in books, film, radio and television.

As for Paul Drake being Black, well, that’s nice. Good for him. But it doesn’t feel like some brave, woke storytelling–more like just another box being checked off. You want to do a series about a Black cop in 1930s LA? Go ahead. But don’t drag Perry Mason into it.

Oh, the show has its moments. Just not eight episodes worth. The courtroom scenes near the end, for example, are truly compelling, and there are some memorable scenes and characters along the way (Perry’s ambitious Hispanic aviatrix is more interesting than most of the major characters–another story that deserves a story of it own). But there’s so much wheel-spinning and tacked-on plot threads that go nowhere that I’m still wondering what a trimmed down six or five-part series would have been like. Or a two hour movie…

So, yeah, a lot to love–but please don’t look too closely at the multiple anachronisms (“throwing shade” in the thirties?) or the many leaps of internal logic that have nothing to do with this very unfaithful adaptation.

Like, we meet Perry in the very first episode, and he’s basically a scumbag, threatening his own client with blackmail, but a few episodes later Della, whom we’re supposed to see as a smart and savvy woman held back by her gender, is dumb enough to think Perry’s the only man righteous enough to see justice done? So she then arranges for Perry to take the bar exam. We see him cramming for all of two weeks, and then… he passes the bar!

Your Honour, I object!

But perhaps the single most obvious symbol of how forced and phony this show ultimately is lies in Perry’s face, for all to see.

It’s the stubble, stupid.

A news flash: They had razors back then—and men used them. Stubble was not trending in 1932. And yet there Perry is, with Matthew Rhys playing the hell out of him, in his carefully tended, stubbled glory, meeting employers and suspects and even attending funerals, looking like he just came off a five-day bender (Entertainment Weekly tagged it as “five-o’clock-somewhere shadow), running down the other must-have items on the 2020 faux-noir checklist:
  •  he drinks too much
  • he has a troubled personal life, and a tragic family history is hinted
  • he’s divorced, with a child he rarely sees
  • he has PTSD from “the war”
  • he has slovenly living conditions
  • he has casual sex with a fuck buddy (of course, this being HBO, we get to witness it. Lucky us)
  • he has dubious personal hygiene

But all these affectations lead absolutely nowhere. Again and again, something dark and dreary is tossed into the mix, and then never addressed again.

Like, I’m still trying to figure out why we were subjected to episode two’s gratuitous war flashbacks (which look like leftovers scenes from Christopher Nolan’s 1917), since Perry’s war experience is never mentioned again. To tell us war isn’t fun? Somebody write that down!

Of course, HBO has announced that due to the “strong numbers,” there will be a second season, and why not?

It looks good.

But the biggest objection, beyond the lip service paid to the source material, the barrage of internal inconsistencies, or that damn stubble remains the relentlessly depressing thick coat of paint they’ve slathered over everything.  The squalor,  the sense nothing can ever go right for anyone–EVER!–weighs this thing down, down, down.

I mean, Perry even gets his estranged son the wrong toy for Christmas! Quelle horreur!

Leonard Cohen sang about everything having a crack in it, because that’s how the light gets in. With HBO’s Perry Mason, they’ve sealed all the cracks, and cut off both all the light.

And the air…

FURTHER RUMBLINGS FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY

  • “… the premise does touch base with Gardner more than you might think. ESG never went to law school but apprenticed himself until he felt he was ready to take the bar. The new Mason’s mentor (John Lithgow) is named E.B. Jonathan, which is precisely the name of the crusty and ethically challenged lawyer who served as mentor to Pete Wennick in a short-lived series Gardner wrote for Black Mask in the late Thirties.”
    — Mike Nevins (October 2020, Mystery*File)

TELEVISION

  • PERRY MASON
    (2020, HBO)
    8-part mini-series episodes
    Premiere: June 21, 2020
    Based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner
    Writers: Ron Fitzgerald, Rolin Jones, Sarah Kelly Kaplan, Eleanor Burgess, Steven Hanna, Kevin J. Hynes, Howard Korder
    Directors: Timothy Van Patten, Deniz Gamze Ergüven
    Showrunners: Ron Fitzgerald, Rolin Jones
    Executive producers: Matthew Rhys, Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey
    Art Direction by Chris Farmer & Robert W. Joseph
    Starring Matthew Rhys (and his stubble) as PERRY MASON
    with Juliet Rylance as Della Street
    Chris Chalk as Paul Drake
    and Shea Whigham Pete Strickland
    Also starring Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Nate Corddry, Gayle Rankin, Lili Taylor, Stephen Root, Robert Patrick, Matt Frewer, Gretchen Mol
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith (August 2020).

5 thoughts on “HBO’S Perry Mason

  1. Kevin;

    I am assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that Erle Stanley Gardner’s estate owns the rights to Perry Mason. How could they allow this travesty?

    1. Money, money, money, money… Generally, when you sell the rights to something, you sell ALL the rights. Gardner, of course, is long gone, and his only child, a daughter, died in 2004, so his literary executors are probably a bunch of accountants and lawyers who couldn’t care less about any liberties taken with his characters, as long as the money continues to roll in.

      In fact, much of Gardner’s early work may already be in public domain, so maybe we ain’t seen anything yet.

  2. And I thought my wife and I were the only ones who felt this way about this recent update, or should I write ‘regression’? The idea of creating a backstory is a good one, but this one left a lot to be desired. For the first 5 eps, till he suddenly became a lawyer [????], we thought it should be called ‘Drake’ with this guy eventually going to work for Perry, who can afford a razor and would lend him one before hiring him.

  3. I actually enjoyed it, but I think it is because I am not familiar with the books and TV show. Although I enjoyed it, I was disappointed by how neatly everything was tied up at the end. I would have liked to have seen the bad cop show up again next season instead of being conveniently killed off. AND I would have loved it if who exhumed the body of the child and how all that happened and all the crimes associated with the church.

Leave a Reply to LesliePetersonSapp Cancel reply