Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 23, 2018)
Back in the 1950s, Perry Mason became an iconic TV series. More than 50 years after its cancellation, the property gets a reboot via HBO’s Perry Mason.
This two-disc Blu-ray set includes all eight of Season One’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the series’ official website.
Chapter One: “Los Angeles, 1931. On the heels of an unsavory investigation involving a famous comedian, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) – a PI struggling to make ends meet – and his right-hand man Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) are hired by attorney EB Jonathan (John Lithgow) to solve a perplexing case: the brutal kidnapping and murder of infant Charlie Dodson, whose parents Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) were targeted for a $100,000 ransom.”
Whereas the old TV series tosses Perry onto a new case every week, the 2020 Mason will pursue one plotline: the investigation of Charlie’s murder. It also becomes something of an “origin story” for Perry, so don’t expect the super-lawyer of the original Erle Stanley Gardner novels or the 1950s/60s TV show.
Instead, we get a down-and-out Perry who scrapes by as a low-rent private detective. That seems like a far cry from the noble hero portrayed by Raymond Burr decades ago.
As an opening episode, I mainly expect basic exposition and character introductions, and “Chapter One” does fine in that regard. It can feel a bit cliché at times, but it manages a fairly appealing opening, one that leaves us reasonably curious to what comes next.
Chapter Two: “Following one of her trademark barn-burning sermons, Evangelical preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) offers the Dodsons the church's full moral and financial support – much to her mother Birdy's (Lili Taylor) dismay. During a routine domestic intervention, beat cop Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is rerouted to a gruesome crime scene, where he follows a confounding trail of evidence.”
This episode uses a fair amount of time with exposition for its new characters, and it also expands on Perry’s past. The former works well, as the fresh roles add intrigue, but the manner in which his World War I service haunts Perry feels gratuitous so far.
Perhaps these elements will seem more organic as the season progresses. Despite my concerns in that domain, “Chapter Two” expands the narrative in a largely positive way.
Chapter Three: “In order to gain an advantage over EB and team, wily district attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) goes public with a shocking new development. Mason and Strickland get unauthorized access to physical evidence with help from Virgil (Jefferson Mays), Mason's connect at the city morgue.”
With the majority of the introductions and exposition out of the way, “Chapter Three” focuses more heavily on the advancement of the plot. For the most part, it moves along material in a moderately engaging manner, but I must admit I don’t find myself as invested in the story and characters as I’d like. Well, S1 still can rebound from here.
Chapter Four: “Mason and Strickland lean on Virgil again, for extra-legal assistance. Following Sister Alice's recovery from a frightening episode, Birdy urges her daughter to renounce her claims about baby Charlie.”
While the core plot to S1 comes with ample intrigue, the series drives it ahead at such a sluggish pace that it seems to take forever to go much of anywhere. The characters don’t seem intriguing enough to compensate. “Chapter Four” dollops out enough narrative drama to keep me with Mason, but I can’t claim to feel grippe by the story.
Chapter Five: “While Mason and Della (Juliet Rylance) run a solemn errand up north, Strickland tracks down the sergeant originally assigned to the Dodson case.”
After the death of a major player in “Chapter Four”, this episode becomes more character-based than usual. That actually makes it more appealing than its predecessors, as the greater emphasis on their stories feels engaging. We get a fairly good mix of character issues and plot here.
Chapter Six: “As Emily's trial begins and a damning witness testimony takes center stage, Mason attempts to recover from a shaky start. Meanwhile, in their search for clues that might lead to an exoneration, Della and Strickland investigate a potential connection between Detective Ennis (Andrew Harris) and Charlie's kidnappers.”
With “Chapter Six”, we nudge closer to the Perry Mason of the novels and TV show, as he finally turns into a defense attorney. Much of this episode focuses on the courtroom drama, and that helps make it a pretty engaging program that moves matter ahead well.
Chapter Seven: “Hoping to expose the hidden link between the Radiant Assembly's staggering debt and Charlie's ransom, Mason puts Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) on the stand.”
Whereas the last episode concentrated largely on the trial, “Chapter Seven” goes more into expanding revelations and personal areas. Because I thought the courtroom moved along the series’ momentum, this reversal becomes a bit of a disappointment. Still, “Chapter Seven” includes enough intriguing material to become a fairly good show, even if I like it less than the last couple of programs.
Chapter Eight: “After the team receives some unvarnished critique from Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), Della presents an increasingly stubborn Mason with her case for putting Emily on the stand.”
As I’ve noted all season long, the main plot we find with this initial year of Perry Mason never quite grabbed me. Matters did improve in the second half, at least, and “Chapter Eight” finds a way to wrap up the tale in a mostly satisfying manner.
Not that one should expect a particularly tidy bow on top of S1, as “Chapter Eight” becomes a finale without the typical “Hollywood ending”. I appreciate that, and the show pushes toward the next year on a pretty positive note.