When the Dragnet radio series moved to television in 1951, creator Jack Webb launched what would become one of the medium’s most enduring genres: the police procedural. The show established a heroic version of the LAPD in the minds of viewers that often had little to do with reality. Perry Mason, which debuted six years later, offered the other side of the story. Based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s detective novels, the legal procedural made it clear that the police and prosecutors were far from infallible, and that the American justice system could easily wrongfully convict people of dire crimes while the real perpetrators went free.
The widespread evidence of police brutality and false incident reports that captured public attention in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd has led to a re-evaluation of how law enforcement is portrayed on TV. Cops has been cancelled, and the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has rushed to show they stand against police brutality. While shows that have effectively and perhaps unknowingly acted as pro-police propaganda for years reckon with their legacy and debate how to move forward, Perry Mason couldn’t be returning at a better time. The HBO reboot, which starts its eight-episode season on Sunday, June 21, draws on film noir and the legacy of the original show to take a critical look at the American justice system, and how it often fails the most vulnerable citizens.
In the original TV series, Raymond Burr played the title character, a Los Angeles criminal-defense attorney and investigator who spent each hour-long episode figuring out who really committed the murder his client had been accused of. HBO’s series is effectively a prequel, with The Americans star Matthew Rhys playing Perry as a fairly traditional noir protagonist — a downtrodden private eye with a strong sense of justice and a weak sense of self-preservation. Set in 1932 Los Angeles, the show follows Perry’s efforts to solve the case of a kidnapped and murdered infant. The investigation puts him at odds with entrenched political interests, a corrupt and murderous police force, and a prosecutor more interested in victory than truth.
Showrunners Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, who previously worked together on Friday Night Lights and Weeds, have put together a fantastic slow-burn mystery brought to life by a superb cast. Like so much noir, Perry Mason starts slow, with the first episode basically just introducing all the power players and the setting. Fitzgerald and Jones’ version of L.A. feels all too familiar: it’s a city in the grips of the Great Depression, where the wealthy and powerful ignore the rules of Prohibition and sip champagne and whiskey at wild parties and luxurious clubs, while the less fortunate huddle in shanty towns and desperately try to find work.
Perry walks the line between those worlds. A World War I veteran badly scarred by the horrors of the trenches, he’s behind on the bills and just getting by taking pictures of movie stars violating studio morals clauses. So when his mentor, the esteemed defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) offers him a big case, Perry comes for the money but winds up embroiled in a dangerous effort to uncover the truth and save Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), a young woman wrongfully accused of killing her own child.
Lithgow does a phenomenal job as the aging legend E.B., channeling the same pathos he brought to playing Winston Churchill’s decline into irrelevance in The Crown. In fact, most of the cast feels like they were chosen based on playing very similar roles in the recent past.
The same blend of dry humor, Everyman earnestness, and moral ambiguity that Rhys demonstrated as a Russian spy masquerading as a suburban dad in The Americans makes him an ideal noir star. Shea Whigham, who played a more bookish sort of noir hero in the first season of Homecoming, serves as Perry’s backup investigator, whose search for leads is too often delayed by his desire to use E.B.’s expense account to buy fine meals and trips to a brothel. Rankin shows the same mix of vulnerability and ferociousness she brought to Sheila the She-Wolf in GLOW, and Stephen Root plays district attorney Maynard Barnes with the malicious charisma he used to play a manipulative assassin-handler in Barry.
Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany delivers a more refined version of that show’s unstable religious fanatic Helena as Perry Mason’s Sister Alice, the charismatic leader of the Radiant Assembly of God, a powerful evangelical church with complicated links to Emily’s case. As a genre whose conventions were established in the 1940s, noir has often relegated women to victim or femme-fatale roles, but Perry Mason deconstructs the tropes it’s built on. Its large cast, which also includes D.B.’s extremely competent assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Alice’s mother and co-church leader Birdy McKeegan (Lili Taylor of Six Feet Under), demonstrates how white men often control the narratives about women and take away their voices by designating them as hysterical and frail, or manipulative and promiscuous.
The legal duel between E.B. and Maynard over the fate of an accused murderer evokes the plot of the musical Chicago — it plays out in the press well before it arrives in the courtroom. Meanwhile, Perry deals with the effects of corruption, a code of silence, and profound racial inequity in the LAPD, as he uncovers evidence of a coverup with the grudging help of beat cop Paul Drake (Chris Chalk). (In the original series, Della was Perry’s assistant, and Paul was Perry’s PI. A scene where the murderous Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard, who played Russian masked detective Red Scare in HBO’s recent Watchmen) threatens the black officer and his family is a chilling reminder of the problems that can still exist even in diversified police departments.
After the first episode, Perry Mason’s writers pick up the pace and keep delivering a heady mix of intriguing mystery, grim humor, small-scale tragedy, and commentary on institutional problems. It’s sprawling in its scope, which includes examinations of the dizzying speed of city growth and technological advances, criticism of how prisoners are treated, and questions about Hollywood’s role in selling feel-good stories to a public that should be hungering for real change.
But by taking their time, Fitzgerald and Jones are able to produce something that feels timeless. It’s a period piece that doesn’t make viewers feel good about how far we’ve come, but rather points out how hard it is to deal with the problems that have always been there.
The original Perry Mason was unrealistic in that Perry never negotiated pleas or even not-guilty verdicts — he always proved his clients were entirely innocent. Fitzgerald and Jones’ version draws on noir characters’ dogged insistence about finding the truth above all. They posit that just as the wrongfully accused shouldn’t have to settle for a lesser sentence, society shouldn’t settle for a world where justice isn’t done.
At a time when politicians and police leaders are arguing that police brutality is the result of “a few bad apples,” Perry Mason shows a justice system that has always been rotten to its core. But it also provides a vision for a way forward, in a world where the innocent and disenfranchised are protected, and the guilty can’t hide behind their power, whether it comes from money or a badge.
Perry Mason launches on HBO on June 21.