How often does the strength of a detective show depend not on the potency or even plausibility of the story, but on the dual elements of performance and atmosphere? A show like the first season of True Detective draws you in instantly, and the plot is no more than a small part of the formula. It’s the interplay of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the ominous, unsettling weight of neo-Gothic Louisiana, that captures you. If it failed on those merits, the story would never matter.
But what are we dealing with here? Well, if you’re like me, you assumed that HBO’s Perry Mason was a kind of “remake” that had something to do with the original Perry Mason series, a late ‘50s, early ‘60s courtroom drama starring Raymond Burr. In fact, the new version has almost nothing to do with that show, beyond sharing a city. This is supposedly an “origin story” of sorts, showing Mason before he became a criminal defense lawyer, and we see him instead as a down-and-out private investigator with egg on his tie and a case of WWI PTSD. This is apparently more in keeping with the character as written originally by Erle Stanley Gardner, and I’m sure the remainder of the eight episode season will see him transform into something like the redoubtable attorney. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of TV viewers will associate the character with Burr, which makes the whole thing is confusing from the jump.
Once you get over that initial complication, you’ll have to wade through a murky plot. There’s a dead baby, grotesque sexual acts involving food that would only be appealing to George Costanza, and a morgue that doubles as a secondhand clothing shop. When the mystery emerges, it’s equally average. The kidnapping, ransom, and eventual murder of a child are the lynchpins, but are also connections to crooked police, a mega-church, and a series of affairs and adoptions that may implicate the parents.
Calling Perry Mason a tepid success is a wavering so-so hand pointed in the general direction of the ‘30s-era Los Angeles set, which feels more theatrical than real, and the presence of Matthew Rhys as the down-and-out private investigator Mason. Both are fine, and at times Rhys is excellent, but it’s never convincing enough to let you disappear into the story. Even when Rhys is at his best, others let him down, including Tatiana Maslany, who is terrific as a preacher in every scene except the ones where she actually preaches. There, she falls flat, and the performance contains traces of desperation; the writers want you to believe she’s a rising star in what passes for the L.A. mega-church evangelical milieu, but she never quite seems believable.
I don’t know if the story is any good now, but as hinted above, I don’t think it matters. The interactions, the stakes, even the supporting actors like John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Eric Lange, and Chris Chalk, while their performances are solid, don’t seem important. While it would be too dramatic to call this show a failure, the fact that it’s not better marks a subtle kind of failure, and one that can’t really be overcome.
Why is this so? I suspect it stems from the opening scenes, which are simultaneously disturbing (you won’t forget one image for some time) and melodramatic to the point of being ham-fisted. It’s hard to tell exactly which kind of show you’re watching … is it a period piece, one part campy west-coast Gotham (there are unemployment lines and movie sets), one part Spielbergian nostalgia, one part noir? Or is it moody and atmospheric and steeped in shadowy realism, a la True Detective? I’m not sure the creators know the answer to this, and their indecision comes across with unfortunate clarity. The first 15 minutes in any drama are critical, and there’s just nothing to grab hold of here beyond an attempt to shock. But frankly, throwing a dead baby on a tram isn’t enough; we’ve been schooled to withstand all sorts of human atrocities in our crime TV, and our innocence was long ago lost. It takes more to hook us.
Without that instant grab, you wait to see what develops, and the worthy scenes only arrive via meandering pathways. This is a show that can’t even get much mileage out of Shea Wigham, one of our great character actors and someone who attracts attention no matter his role. Rhys’ Mason is a character who also wavers; he’s painted as a cynical mess at some points, an empath at others, a hothead when pressed, and either a clever wisecracker or a wounded soul when he sees a dead body. All that, and his veteran backstory doesn’t pack as much punch as it should.
Despite all these gripes, I vaguely enjoyed what I watched, and there’s a pull to keep going. It’s a mild pull, more echo than shout, and one whose call I probably won’t answer right away, but it’s there regardless. Like Ray Donovan, this can pass as good crime television if you don’t look too closely, and like that show, it will attract some praise from people who don’t know any better. Pick your favorite courtroom metaphor—hung jury, mistrial—but judged by the high standards of excellent crime drama, a category that’s flourishing, Perry Mason doesn’t stand out.
Perry Mason premieres Sunday, June 21st on HBO.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here.
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