Review: HBO's new 'Perry Mason' has only one thing going for it: Matthew Rhys
Perhaps now is not the time for noir?
There is something achingly relevant about HBO's remake of Perry Mason, the fictional lawyer and investigator who first appeared in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels. He represents the apex of the somber, seedy noir genre, and in 2020, his misanthropy has practically become a national pastime.
Set in the Great Depression, full of tragedy and deeply mistrustful of police and justice institutions, there are plenty of parallels between HBO's new "Perry Mason" series (premiering Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★ out of four) and the current historical moment – too many. Slow and grisly to a fault, this slog of an investigation into the kidnapping and murder of an infant is just too dark for the coronavirus era.
The bumbling, drunk and angry new version of Perry (Matthew Rhys) is a far cry from the righteous, polished attorney Raymond Burr portrayed in the 1957-66 CBS series. HBO's remake is an origin story for the future lawyer, and this Perry is a younger and messier version of the character than Burr played. He struggles with what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in World War I; yells at his ex-wife over the phone; breaks into crime scenes; and steals ties from corpses in the morgue to wear to court.
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He's working as a private investigator for lawyer 'E.B.' Jonathan (John Lithgow), and, along with Jonathan's secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance), investigates the kidnapping and murder of baby Charlie Dodson. It's a salacious crime that has captured the attention of Los Angeles after both of the baby's parents (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin) are separately accused of the crime. The investigation puts Perry at odds with the Dodsons' evangelical megachurch, ostensibly led by the charismatic preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany, "Orphan Black").
"Mason" would have lived a much better life as a two-hour TV movie. Despite every effort to sensationalize the mystery at the series' center, there simply isn't enough story to justify eight episodes. Each installment drags, and many scenes are padded with lingering takes and excess dialogue.
"Mason" is aggressive in its depiction of trauma and despair, particularly when it repeatedly shows the corpse of an infant with his eyes sewn open, as if including this image only once was not upsetting enough. But graphic gore and grisly imagery don't make a mystery any more compelling, and the scripts struggle to give life to Perry's investigation, no matter how horrific the crime.
The acting helps lift the series from its dull doldrums. Rhys imbues Perry with the schlubby sadness he employed so well in 2019's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" without making the detective entirely unsympathetic. He is an angry, sometimes violent man, but it is clear his rage is often justified. He and Maslany make effective foils. Maslany relishes her dramatic sermons and is convincing enough to draw some followers of her own.
"Mason" recasts Perry's go-to detective Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) as a Black police officer struggling to maintain his integrity in a department actively discriminating against him, and there are times when his subplot is far more intriguing than the main storyline.
But no matter how appealing Rhys is as a down-and-out private eye in search of truth, "Mason" is too funereal. There might be a time for a macabre mystery (especially if it picked up the pace), but it's certainly not now.